There was no denying it. The hall was not only rammed for the Brexit debate but there was sustained and loud applause for Keir Starmer when he said that the ‘People’s Vote’ could have the option of ‘Remain’, since nothing was being ruled out at this point. This position was in contradiction to what John McDonnell had been arguing in the run up to conference: he said that if there were a ‘People’s vote’ it should be on the deal that May had negotiated: it should not be a repeat referendum. And as soon as he could after Keir Starmer made the announcement, Steve Turner of Unite got to the platform to re-state the position John McDonnell had been pushing. However, Jeremy Corbyn later confirmed that Keir Starmer was correctly interpreting the composite motion which had been passed by conference.

If, like me, (and incidentally the delegate, David Mallon of Blyth Valley who was the target of Andy Kerr’s comments) you think the EU was designed, post war, to nail down the coffin lid on socialism, you might try to draw some comfort that Labour’s ‘constructive ambiguity’ is winning or at least sustaining votes from Remainers. Not so according to the Observer on 30th September:

“The latest Opinium poll suggests that Labour lost support among Remainers after its conference – the Party was three points down among the group, with support falling from 53% to 50% of those who voted to stay in the EU.”

From the same poll, on the question of which party was seen to be the best to lead Brexit negotiations the Tories were some way ahead – 29% of those polled preferred them to Labour on 21%.  It was closer on overall voting intentions with 39% saying they would vote Tory and 36% Labour. There is, however, no evidence as yet, that edging towards a second referendum to facilitate remaining in the EU is an election winner.

On the contrary, our very own Professor John Curtice was reported on Politics Live on 20th September, arguing that there is no consistent evidence of a shift in support for a second referendum. More generally, polling shows no fundamental change in public opinion on Brexit. Indeed, polling by IQR conducted, admittedly, for the Brexit-supporting pressure group Global Britain, suggests that any attempt by Labour to frustrate the departure from the EU would lead to Labour candidates facing defeat in 19 of its 25 most marginal constituencies held by the party.

Why is there such a gap in the position on the EU between the majority of Party delegates at conference and many Labour voters. The answer is class. In many working-class constituencies there is no love of the EU which is correctly seen as an undemocratic, distant overlord oblivious to the austerity inflicted on them. I have no scientific evidence to draw on, but it appeared to me that the majority of the new left membership do not come from working class communities.

Here is some of what David Mallon from Blyth Valley in the North East of England said in his speech to conference against a second referendum:

“I implore you, all come to Blyth Valley… and tell them why you want them to remain…For too long they have felt marginalised like they have not had their voices heard…I believe the European Union to be a capitalist club that is for the few, not the many…it uses free trade to take advantage of those who are [from] Eastern Europe — Poles, Romanians, who come over for a better life — and our wages are undercut because the bosses think [that] because of the European Union, they can pay them less.”

His speech was received by many delegates, as Bill Connolly would have it, like a fart in a space suit and they were vocal in their opposition. The same tensions were evident over the trade union positions on Party democracy.

David Mallon is right. The EU has embedded and enforced neo-liberal norms not only throughout EU countries but also states which are part of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA)and through that the European Economic Area (EEA): these too are obliged to honour the four freedoms. Writing in Tribune re-launched at a packed-out fringe meeting at Labour Party conference, Ellen Engelstad excoriates the impact the single market rules have had on Norway.

She describes the contested nature of support for EFTA/EEA by the Norwegian Labour Party in terms reminiscent of differences at the recent Labour Party conference: for the Liberal wing of the Norwegian Labour Party she writes membership of the EU “is a signifier of pro-Western politics and cultural cosmopolitanism” and for its left “the EU represents a serious threat to the welfare state and workers’ rights.”

For Engelstad the Norwegian Labour left  has been spot on. The Norwegian state owned hydro-electric energy company is in jeopardy through the EU’s Agency for the Cooperation of Energy Regulators; postal services have been made open to privatisation through the EU third postal directive and Norway’s public railway system is vulnerable through the EU’s 4th Railway package.

That is not all. Norway introduced a law supported by the Unions to protect foreign workers in the shipyards from employers who wanted to charge them for travel and accommodation. Challenged by the employers, the Norwegian High Court supported the Union case. The EFTA court of justice which works in tandem with the European Court of Justice, however, overturned that decision. In Norway, dock workers were registered and this meant only registered dockers had the right to load and unload ships. The Danish company Holship challenged this through EFTA legal process and won. Engelstad notes:

“These two verdicts were used by the employers’ association as a battering ram to break down workers’ rights in other sectors.”

You may wonder why on earth any socialist movement would want to be a direct part of an organisation like the EU or indeed like Norway, suffer the rules of the single market and pay for the privilege. And yet many Labour Party delegates had greeted Keir Starmer’s speech as if he had read the proclamation of a socialist republic.

The sense the surreal was made worse by bizarre spectacle of pro-EU demonstrators which met us when we left the conference centre, draped in the EU flags and one of them wearing a hat last seen at the mad hatters tea party.

It strikes me that the left has very little time left to dispel the dream world that large sections of the Labour Party have fallen into.

Vince Mills