Delegates to Labour’s annual conference defied predictions and overwhelmingly rejected a motion to support Remaining in the European Union (EU).
The conference had been expected to resoundingly back Remain as many Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs)—along with the powerful Unison union—had called for it.
But after days of attacks from right wing Labour MPs, led by deputy leader Tom Watson, the majority of delegates chose to back Corbyn.
Speaking after the vote on Monday afternoon, Labour member Simon Koreshoff told Socialist Worker, “People believe in democracy. And people are behind Corbyn.”
The result came at the end of a long debate over three proposals on Brexit.
One was a statement from Labour’s national executive committee (NEC), backed by Corbyn. This said the party should only decide its position after a Labour government negotiates a Brexit deal. Another motion supported Labour’s position of negotiating a deal then holding a referendum.
A third said Labour should negotiate a deal but then “campaign enthusiastically for Remain” anyway.
In the end, delegates passed the statement and the supporting motion, and rejected the Remain motion by shows of hands.
Many members said they backed Remaining as the best way to oppose Boris Johnson and his plan for a right wing version of Brexit.
Susan King from Glasgow Southside said, “Brexit is the biggest crisis that this country has faced in my lifetime and frankly it terrifies me. Nobody voted to make themselves poorer, nobody voted to lose their jobs. Nobody voted to ruin the chances of the next generation
“We absolutely cannot sit on the fence. We are the Labour Party and we have the responsibility to fight for the communities we represent, to fight against austerity and Remain in the EU.”
A number of others said they feared Brexit would impose a hard border in Ireland, triggering renewed sectarian violence.
Lewis Nesbitt from the Northern Ireland CLP said, “I ask you today, please think of Ireland north and south.
“Have solidarity with us in Ireland. Remain is the only option to continue this peace.”
Yet an almost equal number of speakers argued against backing Remain. Many said that Labour shouldn’t risk cutting itself off from Leave voters, and should unite around class issues.
Alan Gibbons from Liverpool Walton said, “Whether you vote Leave or Remain, you need us to rebuild the health service, to stand up for the migrants and the poor.
“And when I go on picket lines we have got to talk not just to the 48 percent or the 52 percent but the 99 percent.”
Others argued that rejecting the Remain motion was essential to unite behind Corbyn. “How much would the papers love it if we weren’t behind Jeremy Corbyn?” said Sion Rickard from Aberconwy.
“We are united in our fight to get Jeremy Corbyn into Number 10 and to deliver a socialist government. We need to stand behind him on this. We need to support him, we need to trust him and his team.”
In the end, this was the argument that apparently swung most delegates against Remain. It followed days of attacks on him by the right that made it clear the push to back Remain was a weapon to undermine him.
One delegate Bernie, told Socialist Worker she backed Remain but during the debate “was torn between loyalty to Jeremy and loyalty to the Good Friday Agreement.”
“People wanted to unite behind Corbyn,” she added.
Another, Josh, said “It was the rhetoric of unity” that won. Both said they respected the result of the vote, despite backing Remain. Some on the right—as well as journalists such as ITV’s Robert Peston—have implied the vote was rigged because it was a show of hands.
Despite the victory, the debate exposed Corbyn’s weakness over the EU.
The right were confident that they would win because they have gradually forced him into a position closer to the demands of pro-EU big business. That means he now struggles to challenge them politically.
Instead has to rely on calls for unity and the support of unreliable union leaders to back his fudged positions.
Labour needs a general election campaign not based on what’s good for business and the EU—but a Brexit which can unite working class people and a fight against austerity and racism, and for action on climate change.