Brexit: Labour rejects call to back second referendum
Leadership decision to hedge their bets sparks backlash from party's Remainers
Labour’s ruling body has resisted pressure to back a second referendum before agreeing to any Brexit deal.
Rejecting a campaign by deputy leader Tom Watson, the National Executive Committee announced that its manifesto for the forthcoming European election would be “fully in line” with its existing policy of partial backing for a second poll.
“Labour is the only party which represents both people who supported Leave and Remain,” a spokesman said after the meeting. “We are working to bring the country together after the chaos and crisis created by the Tories.”
According to the Financial Times, the Labour 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.”
Following the lengthy NEC meeting, Jeremy Corbyn announced that the party would back a soft Brexit with a customs union and support the “option” of a public vote only if it was unable to either secure changes to the existing withdrawal deal or force a general election.
The outcome is a setback for Watson, who has campaigned for a second referendum, alongside some union leaders, MPs and Labour candidates for the European elections.
It was criticised by Bridget Phillipson MP, who said: “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, avoid real costs to jobs and living standards, or end the endless crisis around Brexit.”
An NEC source told the Financial Times that the five-hour meeting had largely been amicable, but Richard Corbett, Labour’s leader in Brussels, had been vociferous in his backing of a second referendum. “Corbett got quite heated but then he’s a fundamentalist on that,” the source said.
Another NEC member told The Guardian: “Politically, it was necessary for some people to turn this into a fight about a second referendum but in reality this meeting was not going to change party policy.”
The meeting came as Labour’s cross-party Brexit talks with the government continue. Both sides insisted yesterday there was fresh impetus behind the attempt to find a consensus.