Britain‘s main opposition Labour Party prepared to vote Monday on a new Brexit strategy that could unite its warring factions and avoid a potential drubbing in early polls.
Britain is hurtling toward its October 31 departure from the European Union without an exit agreement and facing the threat of border disruptions that the government admits could cause food shortages and spark civil unrest.
Yet the same disputes over ways out of the crisis that saw Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s right-wing Conservatives lose their working majority — and make a general election appear inevitable — are also fraying Labour on the left.
Top members of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow government argued at their annual conference Sunday that they were a fundamentally European party with an obligation to get the 2016 Brexit referendum results reversed.
But unions and a powerful leftist lobby that helped Corbyn become Labour leader in 2015 want the party to embrace its working-class base of supporters who back Britain charting its own course.
The debate is being waged with opinion polls showing voters confused and dismayed by Labour’s muddled stance on the biggest issue to face the country in generations.
One survey released this weekend put Labour 15 percentage points behind Johnson’s Conservatives.
Another showed Labour effectively tied for second with the Liberal Democrats — a resurgent group that beat Corbyn’s party in May’s European elections and is now campaigning to cancel Brexit.
“We must not just campaign to remain but we must lead the campaign to remain,” Labour’s foreign affairs spokeswoman Emily Thornberry argued on the sidelines of the party gathering in the south coast resort city of Brighton.
Unite union boss Len McCluskey shot back that pro-EU party leaders like Thornberry should “step aside from the shadow cabinet” if they disagreed with Corbyn’s approach.
“Everybody needs to be singing from the same hymn sheet,” he told Sky News.
Letting voters decide
Corbyn has persevered with efforts to embrace both wings of his party by leaving the ultimate decision on Brexit to voters and campaigning instead on bread and butter issues such as schools and jobs.
“Please remember why people voted leave, why people voted remain, but also remember there is more that unites all of those people — over austerity, over investment, over education, over housing, over health, over a green industrial revolution — than there is that divides them,” Corbyn told the BBC.
The party’s executive committee approved a draft Brexit policy proposed by Corbyn that would see Britain remain in a much closer economic alliance with Europe than provided by former prime minister Theresa May’s now-discarded deal.
Labour would then stage a second referendum in which voters would be given the choice of either backing the new Brexit agreement or staying in the EU.
But the draft cited by UK media said the party would only decide whether to campaign for its own Brexit deal after it takes power in a general election.
The exact text of the motion that will be voted on by the Labour party congress Monday was being debated at a special meeting late into Sunday night behind closed doors.
Corbyn is due to conclude the party congress with a keynote address on Wednesday.