Labour members could force a rethink of party policy on free movement and permanent membership of the single market, with Brexit set to overtake internal reform as the key topic dominating the autumn conference, according to senior sources.
Pro-EU MPs and activists are organising to get new commitments to the single market and the continuation of free movement on the agenda for the conference, which takes place in Brighton from 24-27 September.
Local constituency parties now have a fortnight to submit so-called contemporary resolutions for the party to debate, which must be on recently relevant topics.
The Labour campaign for free movement has organised a draft resolution backing the continuation of free movement, which it is encouraging members to submit to local parties to maximise its chances of debate on the conference floor.
The campaign is backed by influential MPs including Clive Lewis, a close ally of Jeremy Corbyn, David Lammy and Tulip Siddiq as well as Manuel Cortes, general secretary of the TSSA union.
Siddiq, the MP for Hampstead and Kilburn, said: “Labour should champion the benefit freedom of movement has brought to Britain, and conference should commit to maintaining it to ensure the UK economy, and particularly London’s economy, is protected.”
The resolution drafted by the group says: “Free movement benefits all workers. Without it, migrants are more vulnerable to hyper-exploitation, making downward pressure on wages more likely. Limiting it would damage the economy and hit living standards. Britain and the EU should welcome migration across Europe and from beyond.”
Michael Chessum, who is coordinating the campaign, said it was a “really important marker of a renewed democracy in the party” because it was a key issue for members. “Free movement could be the policy that demonstrates that we have become a bottom-up party again, with members – who overwhelmingly back free movement – deciding what the party does,” he said.
One party source close to Labour’s ruling national executive committee said party members were likely to support a more liberal approach to EU migration.
“Free movement really is the big controversy that could emerge. It would get a lot of support from members and from unions,” the source said. “If a local party submitted a motion backing free movement, that could be problematic. It could pass, and conference could change our policy.”
Last week the shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, said Labour would press for the UK to remain a member of the single market throughout an extended transition period, which would include the continuation of free movement, the jurisdiction of European courts and EU budget payments.
However, Starmer stopped short of committing the party to long-term membership, citing free movement as the sticking point. He said the party wanted to see “a more effective management of migration, which Labour recognises must be addressed in the final deal”.
Tom Watson, the party’s deputy leader, said Labour could accurately be described as the party of “soft Brexit”, and he hinted membership of the single market could continue indefinitely under a Labour government.
“We think that being part of the customs union and the single market is important in those transitional times because that is the way you protect jobs and the economy, and it might be a permanent outcome of the negotiations, but we have got to see how those negotiations go,” he told the BBC’s Newsnight.
Local parties will submit motions to commit Labour to staying permanently in the single market, coordinated by a campaign from the MPs Heidi Alexander and Alison McGovern via a new website, Labour4singlemarket.org.
“Government policy on Brexit is in total disarray since the election,” McGovern said. “I think the remain vote had a far bigger effect on the Labour surge at the last election than many people realise. Last year, because of the leadership election, it was understandable that it wasn’t the focus. But it would be very surprising if Europe didn’t dominate this time.”
With Brexit and the general election result set to take centre stage at the conference, Labour sources said anticipated rows over party rule changes to make it easier for leftwing candidates to get on future leadership ballots were likely to be a damp squib.
One vote that will divide the conference floor will be on the so-called McDonnell amendment, named after the shadow chancellor John McDonnell, who had favoured reducing the number of MPs needed to nominate a leadership candidate to get their name on the ballot of party members.
Activists have proposed reducing the threshold from 15% to 5% of MPs. Details are yet to be finalised by the party’s national executive committee but a compromise deal of 10% could reached, a move backed by some of the biggest trade unions.
One source close to the NEC described all-out efforts to make it “a big peacemaking conference” rather than reopening old wounds.
“We are so close to power, we need a 1%-2% swing to be in government,” the source said. “So the conversations around sealing Jeremy’s legacy really aren’t relevant any more. There are a handful of people on both the left and the right of the party trying to get people fired up about rule changes but they are pretty lone voices now.”
Another senior party source said attitudes had shifted dramatically since the election result. “Jeremy and the leaders’ office are convinced there will be another early election and believe he could be prime minister before Christmas,” one senior party source said.
“If the conference becomes all about a fight over insular party rule changes, you squander a big opportunity to look like a statesman-like leader. Even moderates on the NEC are really not that concerned about things like the McDonnell amendment.”
NEC members will meet on 19 September, four days before the conference kicks off, to finalise the agenda. The resignation of the Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale, who will be replaced by her leftwing deputy Alex Rowley on the NEC, will give Corbyn-aligned committee members an advantage in key votes before the conference.
Corbyn allies could put forward a motion to create a second deputy leader post, in mind for Emily Thornberry who is currently a de facto second deputy as shadow first secretary of state, filling in for Corbyn at prime minister’s questions during his absence.
This article was written by Jessica Elgot, for theguardian.com on Friday 1st September 2017 18.11 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010