LONDON – Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn won backing for his wait-and-see policy on Brexit after the opposition party’s conference voted to reject a plan to “energetically campaign” to stay in the European Union.
After two days in which the gathering in Brighton, southeast England, was overshadowed by infighting between senior politicians, there were angry scenes as three votes on Brexit went in Corbyn’s favor.
Labour is now committed to fighting a general election, renegotiating a Brexit deal with the European Union and then holding a referendum to allow voters to support that deal or opt to remain in the bloc. Labour will only decide which side to support in that vote once the terms of the deal are known.
Corbyn has sought to strike a balance between “leave” and “remain” ever since the 2016 referendum on the U.K.’s EU membership. While the majority of Labour Party members and lawmakers want to stay in the bloc, many of the constituencies represented by Labour members of Parliament voted to leave.
The splits in the party came to the fore in Brighton as leading figures, including Emily Thornberry and the party’s deputy leader, Tom Watson, called for Labour to unambiguously campaign to stay in the EU.
But others argued the party can only win an election if it stays neutral on Brexit and presents a united front to the public through with a campaign to end austerity and radical social policies. A ballot is widely expected this year.
“From Brexit to the banks, the country needs to hear a united Labour voice arguing for that brighter future,” Len McCluskey, leader of the key Unite labor union, said as he pleaded with delegates to back Corbyn’s compromise position. “Let me say here that Jeremy Corbyn is a thousand times right in trying to speak to our whole country at this time of crisis.”
John McDonnell, the party’s Treasury spokesman, earlier sought to heal rifts over Brexit with a speech promising to transform the British economy.
Among a suite of policies reflecting the socialist revival he and Corbyn have overseen in the party, McDonnell said that if the party won a general election it would cut the average working week to 32 hours — with no loss of pay. He also promised free care for the elderly and investment in green technology.
“Transforming lives means — before everything else — having enough to get by. Not just to scrape by, but to live a rich and fulfilling life,” McDonnell said. “Work isn’t just about wages. It’s about freedom from drudgery; having dignity, respect and a voice in the workplace.”
But the votes on Brexit sparked anger among pro-EU figures in the party, including London Mayor Sadiq Khan, who said he would continue campaigning to stay in the bloc.
“I do not believe this decision reflects the views of the overwhelming majority of Labour members who desperately want to stop Brexit. Labour IS a Remain party,” he said on Twitter. “I will continue campaigning with London Labour to give the public the final say and stop Brexit.”
Labour’s Brexit spokesman, Keir Starmer, said he was “disappointed” by the vote, but pointed out that it might not matter too much in the long run given that party members are “overwhelmingly” in favor of staying in the EU.
“It’s very obvious where we’re going to end up,” he said at a Politico event on the sidelines of the main conference.
Meanwhile rank-and-file party members reflected the divisions. Some were too upset to talk as they left the hall, but others argued it reflected reality.
“I voted for the Labour leadership position today because I’m OK with a Labour-negotiated Brexit and not just to go for Remain,” said Anne Wafer, who was at the conference representing 2,500 international party members. “If we went full-out for Remain, it would mean Brexit would be the central issue of the next election — and it shouldn’t be.”
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