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Torn by Brexit, Labour votes on way out of EU crisis

  • Published at 09:00 pm September 23rd, 2019
Anti-Brexit activists wave EU flags whilst draped in Union flags as they demonstrate outside the Houses of Parliament in London on September 12, 2019 AFP

Labour's identity crisis is being played out as Britain speeds toward a potentially chaotic 'no-deal' departure from the EU on October 31 and a likely general election

Britain's main opposition Labour Party was set Monday to decide on a new Brexit strategy at a fractious conference that has piled pressure on leader Jeremy Corbyn to openly campaign to remain in the European Union.

Labour's identity crisis is being played out as Britain speeds toward a potentially chaotic "no-deal" departure from the EU on October 31 and a likely general election.

Opinion polls show Corbyn's efforts to unite both the pro- and anti-Brexit wings of his party by either delaying a decision on departure or leaving it in voters' hands have led to a dramatic drop in support.

Two surveys published over the weekend put Labour 15 percentage points behind Prime Minister Boris Johnson's Conservatives and in danger of losing second place to the pro-EU Liberal Democrats.

Grass roots activists spent hours deep into Sunday night trying to come up with a single Brexit motion that could be put up for a vote at the conference on Monday.

They ended up with three.

One motion backed by regional party branches says Labour "must reflect the overwhelming view of its members and voters, who want to stay in the EU.

"Labour will therefore campaign energetically for a public vote and to stay in the EU in the referendum, while recognising the rights of those who want to argue another view."

A dissenting proposal backed by the big unions offers "a public vote on a deal agreed with the EU giving people a final say between a credible leave option and remain."

It would not see Labour officially campaign for either option and instead try to "build maximum consensus."

The third motion, proposed by Corbyn himself and backed by the executive, would see the party come to some sort of decision "through a special one-day conference, following the election of a Labour government."

'Honest debate'

Top members of Corbyn's shadow government insist that they are members of a fundamentally European party with an obligation to get the 2016 Brexit referendum results reversed.

"We must not just campaign to remain but we must lead the campaign to remain," Labour's foreign affairs spokeswoman Emily Thornberry said on the sidelines of the conference in the south coast resort of Brighton.

But unions and a powerful leftist lobby that helped Corbyn become Labour leader in 2015 want the party to embrace its working-class base which backs Britain charting its own course.

Unite union boss Len McCluskey said dissenting voices such as Thornberry's meant Labour was facing "a tough fight against those without and those within our party."

"Only division can derail us now," McCluskey said to huge cheers.

Labour's finance spokesman John McDonnell - a Corbyn ally who now backs a campaign to remain in the bloc - rejected speculation that the party was in disarray.

"Do not mistake democracy for division. It isn't," he told BBC radio. "What we're seeing is an honest debate."

He also warned that the Liberal Democrats' vow to get Brexit cancelled by recalling the withdrawal notice London has sent to Brussels threatened "to undermine faith in democracy in all its forms."

"I will campaign for remain," McDonnell told the congress. "But let me make it clear that I profoundly respect those who support a genuine alternative."

Corbyn has persevered with efforts to look past Brexit and campaign in a general election on bread and butter issues such as healthcare and jobs.