Conference Must Unite behind Corbyn’s “Wilson Option”

By Michael Calderbank

Labour has one main task at our Annual Conference – to prepare for what might be an imminent General Election by establishing a platform from which a broad enough range of public support can be built to win an outright majority in Parliament.

The Tories have no answers – to the crisis in our public services, to the epidemic poverty pay and zero hours contracts, to the grotesque inequalities which blight our societies, or to climate emergency. Labour has a powerful agenda of radical and positive action. But first we have to move the conversation on from Brexit.

We cannot afford to wholly alienate either Remain or Leave voting communities. We can’t write-off urban communities, students, public sector workers and university-educated professionals. The Unions have been central to Labour’s resolute and continued opposition to a hard-right, deregulatory Tory Brexit. The argument has to be clearly articulated in the election campaign.

But at the same time, trade unionists know from experience that in the former industrial areas which were once rock-solid Labour heartlands, many voted to Leave as a protest at not being heard by the Westminster establishment. To simply set aside the result of the referendum by revoking Article 50, as the Lib Dems advocate, would be like sticking two fingers up to these communities.

Only a Labour Government can bring the country back together, by ensuring that negotiations take place with the European Union in good faith. If we are to have a further public vote, a credible Leave deal must be negotiated. At the same time, those who wish to put the case for staying in the EU must have the opportunity to seek a democratic mandate.

But this strategy only works if a Labour government is seen as an honest broker in putting the question back to the people. Fixing Labour to a position of advocating a Remain position this side of a General Election might make some party activists feel good. But it would make the whole exercise of holding another referendum look contrived to produce a pre-determined outcome.

By tying the hands of the leadership in this way, Conference delegates could lose us the General Election before the campaign proper even begins.

Such a position would hand the Tories a major boost in Lab-Con marginals which voted (sometimes by overwhelming majorities) to Leave the EU. These form a substantial majority of our target seats.

How can we expect to win marginal seats in areas like Thurrock or Mansfield, where over 70% voted to Leave, if we become champions of the Remain cause? Worse than that, we’d be putting dozens of existing Labour MPs at risk in seats beyond the big Metropolitan centres.

The “Wilson option” – allowing people at all levels of the party to make the argument on either side of a deeply divisive question in a referendum (as Harold Wilson did in the 1974, when we joined the Common Market) is the most responsible solution to a genuinely difficult objective situation.

It offers the country a genuine route-map to resolving the Brexit crisis, and the Labour party the credibility to win over the widest possible constituency of support.

That’s why CLP delegates at Annual Conference should back the position supported by the position put forward by Jeremy Corbyn and backed by the TULO unions. We must avoid creating unnecessary and unhelpful divisions, and take the fight to the Tories on a united basis.