Jeremy Corbyn has seen off a challenge from Labour’s Europhile wing, defeating a bid to commit the party to holding a second EU referendum in all circumstances.
After a lengthy meeting of the party’s ruling National Executive Committee to decide the manifesto for European elections, the Labour leader’s position on Brexit was opposed by a minority of delegates, including his deputy Tom Watson, who had argued that the party should give unequivocal backing to a second vote.
The Labour leader announced afterwards that the party would maintain its existing policy of backing a soft Brexit with a customs union. He added that Labour would support the “option” of a public vote only if it was unable to secure the changes to the government’s existing withdrawal deal — and could not force a general election.
“Labour is the only party which represents both people who supported Leave and Remain,” a spokesman said. “We are working to bring the country together after the chaos and crisis created by the Tories.”
The party leadership believes its position is the only way to keep a delicate balance between its pro-European urban supporters and working-class voters in the heartlands of the Midlands, northern England and Wales who want to leave the EU.
The result is a setback for Mr Watson, who has stepped up his support for a so-called People’s Vote in recent weeks. It is also a riposte to a number of union leaders, MPs and 34 Labour candidates for the European elections expected to take place at the end of May, who signed a pledge earlier this week to campaign for a second referendum on whether or not to remain in the EU.
Bridget Phillipson, an MP who backs a rerun of the 2016 poll, said the policy agreed by the NEC was the “bare minimum needed” to persuade people to back the party at the European elections on May 23.
“The manifesto’s mealy-mouthed wording still maintains the fiction that there is a deal out there that can satisfy all the promises made three years ago,” she said.
Many pro-European party figures fear the political ramifications of failing to prevent Britain’s departure from the EU, and worry that anti-Brexit parties, such as the Liberal Democrats and Change UK (CUK), could benefit in the upcoming poll. However polls indicate that voters are split between the two pro-EU parties.
After the NEC decision was announced, Heidi Allen, acting leader of CUK, said: “If Labour voters were ever in any doubt — they know now . . . we WILL be your voice for remain.”
One NEC member said the five-hour meeting had largely been amicable, but that Richard Corbett — the party’s leader in Brussels — had been vociferous in his attempts to change the policy in favour of a second referendum in all circumstances. “Corbett got quite heated but then he’s a fundamentalist on that,” the person said.
Tom Brake, spokesman for the Lib Dems, described the “pointless” deliberations by the NEC as a “stitch-up”. “With all the Brexit chaos it beggars belief that the Labour leadership have failed to unequivocally commit to giving the people the opportunity to exit from Brexit,” he said.