Second Brexit Referendum Prospects Dim as Union Aids Corbyn

(Bloomberg) -- Jeremy Corbyn’s biggest financial backers backed away from a decision that might have forced the Labour leader into supporting a second referendum on Brexit.

It could have been a game changer -- a chance to rethink the 2016 decision should the U.K.’s main opposition party come to power. Instead, there was a last-minute compromise.

The leader of Unite, Britain’s biggest workers’ union, said that while the option for a vote should be kept open, colleagues should not tie Corbyn’s hands. Delegates at his union’s policy conference in Brighton voted overwhelmingly to back him.

“Let me be clear, we are not calling for a second referendum,” Len McCluskey told members gathered for the annual Unite conference in Brighton. “This is not the moment for putting ourselves in a straightjacket.”

A day earlier, McCluskey said he would fight with all his "influence and power of oratory" for a second referendum if unite members wanted him too.

As the biggest contributor to Labour’s coffers, Unite’s policy decisions are influential. On Tuesday, when Corbyn will be taking the floor, delegates debated motions on Brexit which included a call for the union to press for a second referendum. Those motions were all swept away by the compromise deal tabled by McCluskey.

Delegates warned that if Unite backed a second vote it would undermine Corbyn’s leadership and add to divisions in the Labour Party.

Instead, the motion that won the day holds open the possibility of a second vote “depending on the political circumstances.” It hands decisions over tactics to the union’s Executive Council.

That’s not binding language -- which will be a relief to Corbyn, a lifelong euroskeptic, who has repeatedly resisted calls to throw his weight behind a rethink of Brexit.

That said, Labour has been shifting its Brexit policy toward maintaining closer EU ties as a way to separate itself from the Conservative Party it wants to topple. In reality, the party is also at odds on Brexit, though those differences have been easier to mask in opposition.

Labour Divisions

McCluskey poured scorn on a poll, commissioned by the People’s Vote campaign, which showed that 57 of Unite members back a referendum on the Brexit deal. It was commissioned by Open Britain, which campaigns to maintain the closest EU ties.

Policy shouldn’t be dominated by outside influences, he said. The priority is forcing a snap election to get a Labour government in office. Corbyn came close to beating Prime Minister Theresa May last year.

“Unite’s policy will be set here by our elected delegates and our elected Executive Council, and not by any unrepresentative opinion polls commissioned by God knows who,” McCluskey said. “In or out of the EU matters less than getting the Tories out of office and Jeremy Corbyn into number 10.”

His view echoes a similar line from Corbyn, who told the BBC on Sunday that in the event of a bad deal “we would vote against it and challenge it in parliament and hope to force a general election on that basis.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.