Tackling the forces of conservatism

*This article first appeared in The Herald on 22/09/18*

By Catherine Stihler
Labour MEP for Scotland

AT Labour’s 1999 conference in Bournemouth, the party was in buoyant mood.
We were riding high in the polls, a manifesto commitment to deliver Scottish devolution had become a reality, and delegates were confident of a new millennium that would be shaped by progressive politics.
In his keynote address, Tony Blair spoke of a ‘new Britain where the extraordinary talent of the British people is liberated from the forces of conservatism that so long have held them back’.
I was in Bournemouth for my first conference as a Labour MEP, following that year’s European elections.
The word Brexit would have been an alien phrase back then, but the issue of our relationship with Europe was still a hot topic.
“Is our destiny with Europe or not?” Blair asked. “If the answer is no, then we should leave. But we would leave an economic union in which 50 per cent of our trade is done, on which millions of British jobs depend. Our economic future would be uncertain; but what is certain is that we would not be a power.”
This weekend, Labour members are gathering in Liverpool for our annual conference. I will not be attending. If I was, it would be my last after nearly two decades as an MEP, before the UK leaves the EU in March next year.
Like many fellow parliamentarians, I can’t quite bring myself to attend when I’m so dejected about the prospect of Brexit and disillusioned with our party’s willingness to go along with it.
There is no doubt that over the coming days, Jeremy Corbyn will be treated to a rapturous welcome and a standing ovation after his keynote speech that will long outlast Blair’s in ’99.
But I hope Corbyn listens to more than just the applause; I hope he listens to the voices of ordinary Labour members in Scotland and across the EU.
Just like in 1999, Europe will be a major topic of discussion. More than 100 Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs) have submitted motions to conference calling on the party to back a People’s Vote on the final Brexit deal. The list includes at least ten Scottish CLPs.
Rank-and-file members are overwhelmingly in favour of remaining in the EU; our voters are likewise; and polls suggest there is growing support among all voters for a rethink on Brexit.
Labour members were not given a say on Brexit at the 2017 conference, and this year’s Scottish Labour conference saw attempts to block a vote on Single Market membership. Members must not be silenced in Liverpool.
Brexit is the biggest political issue facing the country in a generation. We are hurtling towards a cliff-edge, with Theresa May adopting a high-risk stance of ‘my way or no way’. Given her Chequers deal is dead, the prospect of a ‘no deal’ Brexit is very real. That’s something nobody voted for in the 2016 referendum.
What an opportunity for Labour to seize the initiative and back a People’s Vote. Until the Article 50 deadline expires, we still have all the rights of a member state, including the right to change our minds.
I hope, over the next few days, Jeremy Corbyn is among those to change his mind.
But annual conference is not only a time to listen to members; it’s a time to speak to the country.
Our politics has become horribly fractured, and Labour needs to help resuscitate the three foundations of tolerance, facts and ideas – and prevent the drift to the extremes.
We can’t hope to win power by speaking only to those who pack out the ACC in Liverpool – we must offer something to the millions of voters crying out for progressive politics.
In his 1999 speech, Tony Blair said Labour must be the ‘progressive force that defeats the forces of conservatism’ in the 21st century.
Today, the forces of conservatism are in power and they are once again holding our country back. They are shredding the bonds that unite us within communities here in Britain, and with our allies across Europe.
This conference is an opportunity for Labour to demonstrate how it will fix these bonds – before it is too late.