"We can no longer as a party try and appease the small number of people who still think Brexit was a good idea" - Richard Corbett

Published on October 13, 2023

The EM team had a busy Labour Party Conference, representing the organisation at fringe events and making new, important contacts. For length and clarity, we have chosen highlights from each day to give a flavour of what we were up to. 

On Saturday Emma and Maura attended events by the Labour Women’s Network. They were inspired by the amazing stories of women in politics and business who addressed the room, including Angela Rayner and Lisa Nandy, and took away many ideas for EM as we look to improve representation of women and minorities at every level of our movement. 

Then we kicked off the day on Sunday with a polling session on former ‘red wall’ seats and some focus grouping. Although many Brexit voters now look back at the Leave campaign as ‘lies on buses’, they aren’t ready to reopen the Brexit debate while the cost of living crisis is biting and NHS waiting lists are so long. Although Labour is ahead with these groups, the danger for both parties is voters choosing to stay at home because of loss of faith in the political system. We can definitely take this insight into our own campaigning moving forward. 

Andrew’s top pick on Sunday was a fringe asking ‘How Can Labour make Britain the best home for the creative industries’, where new shadow Culture Secretary Thangham Debbonaire spoke passionately about her plans for musicians. Emma managed to grab her for a quick chat on musicians’ visas later that day.

Maura’s highlight was a discussion between former Business Secretary Peter Mandelson and current Shadow Business Secretary Jonathan Reynolds on Labour’s green industrial strategy. The US’s Inflation Reduction Act and the EU’s response were a common topic of conversation in economics and trade fringes, and Labour is looking to establish the UK in this dynamic, which will inevitably mean a better working relationship with EU partners.

Pablo attended several events on the future of Northern Ireland, both economically and politically. Several staff members supported our partner organisation Labour Movement for Europe at their rally, where speakers included its chair Stella Creasy MP, new Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary Hilary Benn MP, Irish Labour Party leader Ivana Bacik TD, Claire Hanna AM, and PES General secretary Giacomo Filibeck. 

Representatives from our team also attended the EU Ambassador’s Reception and met Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy, who reiterated the need for closer co-operation with the EU during the entire conference.  

Richard attended a fringe event on Monday about British manufacturing with Maria Eagle, Nia Griffiths, GMB General Secretary Gary Smith and industry leaders. They talked about how integrated a modern economy needs to be with the rest of the world, strengthening and specialising our supply chains while working with democratic partners to access raw materials.

Mark heard from pollsters, MPs and MSPs at an event on Labour’s electoral coalition, and the groups of voters that are switching their votes to Labour and other parties. The previous Tory voting coalition has crumbled, with ‘red wall’ and ‘blue wall’ voters looking for a change in direction. The panellists identified Sunak’s rightward lurch on issues like migration and the culture wars as a potential misstep, as it alienates the socially liberal but fiscally conservative voters who once supported David Cameron and who have not yet completely abandoned his coalition.

Maura was able to ask Nick Thomas-Symonds a question on our Market Access campaign at a Chatham House roundtable. He agreed that making sympathetic noises on EU co-operation is not enough to rebuild trust between UK and EU businesses, and that Labour will seek to be a constructive partner to our European allies. 

In the evening, we co-hosted a reception with Labour for a European Future at the Cain Brewery. We heard from our CEO Nick Harvey, Chair Mike Galsworthy, Richard Corbett and others on the necessity of a closer working relationship with Europe. The event was packed (and not only because it was held at a brewery), but because pro-Europeanism sentiment is strong within the Labour Party, despite the political silence on Brexit from the leaders of the Labour Party. 

As Richard Corbett said: 

"Every month since we left the EU we've seen more and more people regretting Brexit and wanting to rejoin the EU". 

"We're facing a crisis in Britain, public services are suffering, investment in the future has been stunted, economic growth is stagnant and none of this can be fixed without rebuilding relationships with our nearest neighbours, and realigning with the European single market". 

"We can no longer as a party try and appease the small number of people who still think Brexit was a good idea. We have to address the views of the growing number of people that recognise Brexit was a disaster for Britain". 

Unsurprisingly, these were not the only words of encouragement we received during the conference, in fact, it was great to grasp just how Labour members are feeling when it comes to the political silence on Brexit and our future inside of the EU. 

Tuesday was a quieter day as all eyes focussed on Keir Starmer’s speech. Nevertheless, Richard heard about the importance of the Single Market for SMEs at an IPPR event with Nick Thomas-Symonds and Gareth Thomas.

Mark attended a post-speech fringe on trade with Lady Hayter, the Resolution Foundation’s Sophie Hale and the Financial Times. They concluded that there is scope to improve the Brexit deal but ‘cakeism’, cherry-picking things we want without giving the EU anything in return, will never work. Mark also challenged the idea that there is no route back to the Single Market for the UK at an event by UK in a Changing Europe, which looked at ‘Bregret’ among leave voters. 

All in all, we had a constructive week at conference. EM’s position and the Labour position seem aligned on many important issues including phytosanitary goods, co-operation on security and the environment. Although the EU was not discussed on the conference floor, all economic, foreign policy and security fringes dealt with our relationship in some way, as did many of the skills and polling events. It is clear that Labour wants a ‘reset’ of our relationship with Europe, while avoiding a rerun of the Brexit debates. Business leaders spoke in support of this approach, with an emphasis on stability and small, incremental steps. Interestingly, it mirrors our own ‘step-by-step’ approach agreed by National Council and our executive committee. It’s good to know that we’re on the right path! 

We did, however, struggle to get our message across thanks to a small but vocal protest outside. Polling suggests that the EU flags and loud demonstrations are a turn-off for voters, and we have shared this polling with activists at our grassroots conference earlier this year and in webinars. It seems that senior politicians and business leaders also feel this way. When you only have 30 seconds with a shadow minister, and you have to spend 15 seconds creating some distance, it’s almost impossible to get your message across. These demonstrations certainly don’t help, and they aren’t harmless, they undermine the hard work many of us are doing to build that coalition of support. We need to decide if the UK’s pro-European movement wants to do things that feel good or do things that do good. If the answer is the former, then we will be talking to ourselves as other people’s agendas dominate.

Help us put Europe on the political agenda before the general election

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