U.K. Labor Unions Open to Backing New Referendum on Brexit Deal

(Bloomberg) -- Britain’s trade unions will demand that a second referendum on Brexit be kept on the table as the campaign to give the public a final say on Prime Minister Theresa May’s divorce deal gathers pace.

The call will be made in an agreed statement by the Trades Union Congress umbrella group on Sunday, according to three people familiar with its contents. The move comes two weeks before the main opposition Labour Party’s annual conference and will add pressure on leader Jeremy Corbyn over a so-called “people’s vote.”

“We don’t believe the British public have ever fully been appraised of the risks of leaving the EU, certainly not the risks of leaving with no deal,” said Jon Skewes, director of external relations for the Royal College of Midwives, which is co-sponsoring a Brexit motion at the TUC conference on Monday. “If it’s a question of crashing out, doing it on terms that will cost the U.K. hugely, we think that should be put to the people.”

Corbyn, a euroskeptic, already appears to have softened his position on the prospect for a vote. Asked about the issue by the Hull Daily Mail on Monday, he said “we don’t have a position on it yet.” That contrasts with January, when he told the BBC that “we are not supporting or calling for a second referendum.”

Worker Rights

While not all trade unions are linked to the Labour Party, Unite, Unison, the GMB and USDAW, the four biggest in the TUC, are all affiliates and provide money and campaigning muscle to the party. Corbyn is committed to cementing links with the unions after they were weakened under former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s leadership and their backing for Sunday’s statement will be hard for him to ignore.

Unite is also co-sponsoring Monday’s motion with the Royal College of Midwives, TSSA and the Communication Workers Union after agreed wording was thrashed out this week to combine four motions already on the agenda. It calls for “the option of a people’s vote to be kept on the table.”

May’s deal will only be acceptable if it provides “tariff free, barrier free, frictionless trade,” protection for workers rights and those of EU citizens working in the U.K. and the maintenance of Northern Ireland’s Good Friday Agreement, the motion says.

Campaign

“The TUC should campaign against any deal that does not meet its tests with the aim of forcing an early general election to secure a Labour government with a mandate for a Brexit deal that puts working people first,” it says. “Congress doesn’t rule out the possibility of a campaign for people to have a final say on the Brexit deal through a popular vote being held.”

Campaigners pressing for a “people’s vote” to be debated at the Labour Party conference, which opens on Sept. 23, hope that so many local party groups will have proposed its inclusion on the agenda that it will pass through the Conference Arrangements Committee and be backed in a vote by delegates.

“We’re absolutely confident there’ll be more Brexit motions going to the CAC than any other issue,” said Mike Buckley, leader of Labour for a People’s Vote. The group has been encouraging local parties -- which are each allowed to send one ‘contemporary’ motion to conference -- to back a second referendum.

“We’re increasingly confident that Labour will shift its position on this, its just a question of when,” he said.

Their cause was boosted this week when the GMB union called for a referendum on any deal reached with Brussels. Having a second vote would be in the traditions of trade unionism, General Secretary Tim Roache said.

“As trade unionists, when we negotiate a trade deal with employers we go back to our members and ask if they’re happy with it, if they want to accept or reject it.” Roache said. “That’s what people deserve now because the promises that were made in the referendum campaign are not the reality we’re facing.”

Dilemma

But Unite, Labour’s biggest financial backer, backed away from committing to a second referendum earlier this year, brokering a compromise at its own conference so as not to “tie the hands of the leadership.”

That may provide the model for the Labour conference as Corbyn seeks to straddle the Brexit divide to balance the fact that while most districts the party represents backed leaving the EU in the 2016 referendum, the majority of its supporters nationwide voted to remain.

The party has said it respects the result and that if voted into power, would “prioritize jobs and living standards” in talks with Brussels.

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