Labour could wait until after election to decide position on second Brexit referendum

21 September 2019, 21:00 | Updated: 22 September 2019, 13:03

Labour could head into a general election campaign without a clear position on which side it would support in a second Brexit referendum.

A policy statement put forward by Jeremy Corbyn to the National Executive Committee (NEC) says Labour would strike a new deal with Brussels within three months and then put it to another public vote.

The party's position in that referendum would be settled in a special conference after an election.

Mr Corbyn has denied suggestions he is sitting on the fence when it comes to Brexit, saying "leadership comes from listening".

But the NEC move has angered some within the party, amid continuing calls from certain quarters for Mr Corbyn to back the Remain side in a second vote on the EU.

Scores of motions calling for such a policy shift have been submitted to the party's annual conference in Brighton.

But proponents of such a move fear the NEC statement, which has not yet been signed off, would shut down debate on the topic.

Shadow Treasury minister Clive Lewis said it was "just plain wrong", adding: "We, the left, took over the leadership of this party promising internal democracy, promising a new kind of politics.

"And yet here we are, with a leadership apparently determined to shut down democratic debate on the crucial issue of the day, probably relying on union bloc votes to outvote the members.

"It's not what we signed up for."

Brighton Kemptown MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle said: "We are being hammered on the doorstep because our Brexit position is a fudge.

"Yes, it's great that we are putting forward a public vote and a remain option.

"But in every seat in the country, Leave and Remain, we are losing votes because our voters are turning to Remain parties.

"This conference is our one chance before an election to get out of the fudge - we cannot allow that to be taken away from us in some procedural stitch-up."

Owen Smith, who challenged Mr Corbyn for the Labour leadership in 2016, said the stance would be "the antithesis of 'honest politics'."

Michael Chessum, national organiser for the campaign group Another Europe is Possible, said: "Introducing an NEC statement in this manner would be a bare-faced attempt to shut down a democratic debate on Brexit at conference.

"The idea that Labour would not take a position now, and put it off to a special conference just after an election, is absurd."

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On Saturday, campaigners for a second referendum held a rally in Brighton.

Addressing the People's Vote event, Labour's Brexit spokesman Sir Keir Starmer said another public vote was the "only way out" of the current deadlock.

Sir Keir said he would back Remain if such a vote were to take place.

"I have to admit that a year or so ago I wasn't sure that a referendum was the right way out - but now I'm utterly convinced it's the only way out," he said.

"We've been trying in parliament to sort this out, we've had three years where we've tried to sort this out and we can't, and therefore it's got to go back to the public."

He added: "When that time comes, I will campaign for Remain alongside millions of other people in this country, because it's not just a technical question of whether you want to be in or out of the EU, it's about what sort of country you want to be."

Labour frontbench colleague Emily Thornberry told the crowd that Labour should campaign for Remain in a second referendum.

"We're not going to let it happen that we crash out of Europe without a deal," she added.

"We must make sure that there is a second referendum and Remain is on the ballot paper and Labour campaigns for Remain - and not just that, Labour should lead the campaign."

Speaking to ITV Yorkshire on the eve of Labour's conference, Mr Corbyn defended his Brexit policy.

"I am not sitting on the fence," he said.

"I think leadership comes from listening. I think leadership comes from asking people to look at the realities of the situation.

"It is not a muddled position. It is a position that takes the issue seriously."

Mr Corbyn revealed a compromise policy ahead of conference, pledging to carry out whatever voters decide in a second referendum if he becomes prime minister.

Pressed in a subsequent interview with Sky News, the Labour leader refused multiple times to say how he would vote in a second referendum.

Conservative Party chairman James Cleverly said: "Corbyn's Brexit policy can be summed up in three simple words: more pointless delay.

"Jeremy Corbyn can't lead his own party, let alone the country, and he couldn't negotiate his way out of a wet paper bag."

Tom Brake, Brexit spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, said: "Through choosing whether to support Leave or Remain after the election, millions of Remain Labour supporters could help elect a leave government."