Britain’s main opposition Labour Party is bracing for a tumultuous debate on the toxic issue of Brexit at its annual conference on Tuesday amid deep divisions between delegates.
Many young members oppose it, carrying bags reading “Love Corbyn, Hate Brexit” at the gathering in Liverpool, while older, working-class Labour voters are in favour.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has so far played a canny game by allowing the debate to tie the government in knots while remaining ambiguous, but the time is nearing to reveal his hand.
“It’s decision time and we need to nail our colours to the mast,” Emily Wallace, chair of the Vauxhall Labour party, told AFP on the side-lines of the party conference in Liverpool.
Her delegation plans to vote in favour of a conference motion on Tuesday supporting “all options remaining on the table”, including the possibility of a second referendum on Brexit.
The motion’s wording was agreed on Monday after five hours of intense talks and it disappointed many party members, who had hoped for a firm commitment to a second vote on a final Brexit deal, including the option to remain in the EU.
Labour’s policy on Brexit is significant because of the current weakness of Prime Minister Theresa May’s government, which lacks a stable majority in parliament and could face defeat by MPs if and when it brings a final deal with Brussels for a vote.
Pro-EU activists were dealt another blow when shadow finance minister John McDonnell on Tuesday said any second vote should not include the choice of whether or not to stay in the EU.
Shadow Brexit minister Keir Starmer contradicted him, saying the motion “clearly keeps remain on the table”, while pro-EU MP Stephen Kinnock said he was “baffled” by the comments.
The confusion reflects the ideological and tactical splits within the party, which Corbyn has largely masked through vague messaging, instead focusing on unifying domestic issues.
However, with Brexit negotiations entering the final phase, the pressure is on Corbyn to plot a clear path in order to capitalise on May’s weakness in the negotiations.
But the way ahead is far from clear and polls show the country is still more or less divided on Brexit – although a narrow majority might now support staying in the EU.
Labour’s traditional left-wing working-class constituencies voted largely to leave the EU.
“The EU was a social democratic movement, and it was a good idea, but after the financial crash, it decided to bail out the banks at the expense of the people,” Brexit supporter Les Thomas said at a protest against a second referendum.
Complex set of voters
But the centrists who took charge when Tony Blair became party leader in 1994 strongly favour the EU, and despite being side-lined by Corbyn’s election, they comprise a large rump of the party’s MPs.
The most complex set of voters are the new members, many young, who were attracted to Corbyn’s social justice agenda, but who tend to not share his historic suspicion of the EU and its free-trade policies.
The stakes couldn’t be higher, with a wrong move potentially returning Corbyn to the political side-lines.
If he can bridge the party’s divides, the ultimate prize beckons.
Speaking at a pro-EU demonstration at the conference, Claire Hallett, 60, said Corbyn was in “a terribly difficult position” but should come out firmly against Brexit.