British opposition party gathers for its annual conference with members demanding a fresh referendum on EU exit
Labour will push for second EU poll if no general election
Britain’s main opposition party Labour gave succour to Brexit challengers on Sunday as it toyed with the idea of endorsing a second referendum on the UK’s departure from the European Union.
Gathering for its annual conference in its staunchly left-wing citadel, Liverpool, in the north-west of the country, the party decided to schedule a major debate on Brexit this week.
Late on Sunday, the committee which decides what will be debated at conference agreed a motion which said that if the party "cannot get a general election Labour must support all options remaining on the table, including campaigning for a public vote", according to the BBC.
While some supporters of a vote on a second referendum felt the decision was a fudge, the Huffington Post reported that a source within the People’s Vote campaign was pleased with the move: “This motion is clear movement from the party. They know where their members are and they know where their voters are.”
With the UK and the EU at an impasse in divorce talks, many Labour members think the party has the power — and a duty — to force a new referendum that could reverse Britain’s decision to leave the 28-nation bloc.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn – a life-long Eurosceptic – has long opposed that idea, but he and other party leaders are under pressure to change their minds. As delegates gathered in Liverpool, one message was emblazoned on hundreds of T-shirts and tote bags: “Love Corbyn, Hate Brexit”.
Ever since Britain voted in 2016 to leave the EU, Labour has said it will respect the result, although it wants a closer relationship with the bloc than the one PM Theresa May’s Conservative government has struggled to achieve.
With divorce negotiations now stuck and Britain due to leave in March, many Labour members think the party must change its course.
“Labour have to come to a decision. The time has gone for sitting on the fence,” said Mike Buckley of Labour for a People’s Vote, a group campaigning for a new Brexit referendum.
To drive home the message, several thousand People’s Vote supporters marched through Liverpool on Sunday, waving blue-and-yellow EU flags alongside Union Jacks and holding signs reading "Exit from Brexit" and a few ruder slogans.
More than 100 local Labour associations have submitted motions to the conference urging a public plebiscite, with a choice between leaving on terms agreed upon by the government or staying in the EU. Party members selected Brexit as one of the priority issues delegates will consider, with a debate scheduled for Tuesday. But what exactly they will vote on has yet to be decided, and will be crucial.
Margaret Mills, a delegate from Orpington in southern England, said her local party had passed a motion calling on Labour to “Stop Brexit by any means — well, short of physical violence.”
“I think the time for vagueness is over,” she said.
Mr Corbyn has long been against holding a second public vote on Brexit, although his opposition appears to be softening.
He said on Sunday that he would prefer a general election rather than a referendum, but added: “Let’s see what comes out of conference.”
“Obviously I’m bound by the democracy of our party,” Mr Corbyn told the BBC.
Deputy leader Tom Watson was even firmer.
“We must back it if Labour members want it,” he told The Observer newspaper.
Still, Labour faces a major political dilemma over Brexit. Most of the party’s half a million members voted in 2016 to remain in the EU, but many of its 257 lawmakers represent areas that supported Brexit.
“For Labour to adopt a second referendum policy would spell political disaster in all those Labour seats that voted leave,” said Brendan Chilton of the pro-Brexit group Labour Leave.
Since the 2016 referendum, Labour has stuck to a policy of ‘constructive ambiguity’ in a bid to appeal to both ‘leave’ and ‘remain’ voters. The party opposes May’s ‘Tory Brexit’ plan but not Brexit itself. It calls for Britain to leave the EU but remain in the bloc’s customs union with “full access” to the EU’s huge single market.
Len McCluskey, leader of the Unite trade union, a powerful Labour ally, said British voters had decided to leave the EU and “for us now to enter some kind of campaign that opens up that issue again I think would be wrong.”
Yet pro-EU Labour members, including many MPs, say the party’s ambiguous stance is becoming increasingly untenable as the risk of an economically damaging ‘hard Brexit’ grows.
The Conservative government’s blueprint for future trade ties with the bloc was rejected last week by EU leaders at a summit in Salzburg, Austria. That left Mrs May’s leadership under siege and Britain at growing risk of crashing out of the EU on March 29 with no deal in place.
Andrew Adonis, a Labour member of the House of Lords who supports holding a second referendum, said Labour can’t sit on the sidelines while the country staggers toward political and financial chaos.
“This is as big a crisis as I can remember in my lifetime,” Mr Adonis said. “And no one has a clue at the moment what is going to happen.
“That’s why I think we now need to take a stand — we the Labour Party and we the country.”
Meanwhile, the party also announced that UK-based companies with more than 250 employees would be forced to give 10 percent of their equity to staff if Labour wins the next election.
John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, will make the pledge in a speech on Monday, saying that the shares would be handed over at a rate of one percent a year and held in Inclusive Ownership Funds that would pay annual dividends to a maximum of £500 (Dh2,401).
Any dividends above that amount would be skimmed off by the government for a “social fund” to help pay for public services.