Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the U.K. opposition Labour Party, reacts at an event to announce the results of the leadership contest ahead of the party’s annual conference in Liverpool, U.K. (Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg)

U.K. Labour's Split on Brexit Referendum Threatens Election Push

(Bloomberg) --

The U.K.’s opposition Labour Party’s ruling council will seek to thrash out a Brexit strategy Tuesday as leader Jeremy Corbyn tries to head off a split that threatens to derail his election plans.

While some lawmakers and trade union leaders have called for the party to pledge to support a second referendum on leaving the EU, Corbyn’s team is pressing for it to stick to its compromise policy of keeping that as an option rather than a firm commitment.

U.K. Labour's Split on Brexit Referendum Threatens Election Push

The issue will come to a head at a meeting of the party’s National Executive Council on Tuesday morning when members will be asked to sign-off on Labour’s manifesto for the European Parliament elections currently scheduled for May 23.

Corbyn has sought to straddle both sides of the Brexit divide to retain the loyalty of party members and lawmakers who back staying in the EU while not alienating supporters in Leave voting districts who he’ll need to win power at the next general election. If the NEC votes to back a second referendum, it threatens to blow that strategy apart.

‘Clear Commitment’

There was anger among pro-EU Labour MPs last week when a draft leaflet for the European Parliament election -- which Prime Minister Theresa May still hopes she can avoid by persuading lawmakers to back her divorce deal -- didn’t include any reference to a referendum. Some activists said they won’t campaign for the party if it isn’t rewritten.

“A clear commitment to a confirmatory public vote on any Brexit deal must be part of our European election manifesto,” a group of 88 Labour MPs and MEPs wrote in a letter to members of the NEC on Friday. “Without this clear commitment we fear that our electoral coalition could fall apart.”

But MPs from Brexit voting districts warned that Labour candidates in their areas could suffer in local elections this Thursday if the party abandons its carefully crafted ambiguity and appears to favor remaining in the EU. Some called for the decision to be postponed until after this week’s votes.

‘Duty of the Left’

NEC members have been lobbied by party members and the leadership in the run up to Tuesday’s meeting, and some have announced how they will vote, though enough are still undeclared to make the outcome uncertain.

“I believe that it is the duty of the left to provide a compelling vision of Britain outside of the EU which will not alienate Leave voters but also give ardent Remainers an optimism for a society where the economic rules of the game will change,” Lara McNeill, a youth representative on the NEC who opposes a shift in policy, said in a blog post Monday. “I won my election without mentioning Brexit in my manifesto and in fact running against a candidate who pledged to support a ‘People’s Vote’ policy.”

The party leadership is involved in talks with the government in an attempt to find a compromise on Brexit that both sides could vote for. Monday’s talks were described as “productive” by May’s team, while Labour said they represented an improvement on deadlocked discussions last week.

But for some Labour activists, the party should be distancing itself from the Brexit process altogether and a second referendum gives it that chance.

“Labour has a huge opportunity to offer the country a clear way out of the Brexit mess that the Tories have created,” said Mike Buckley, director of Labour for a Public Vote. “The best way to do that is to offer a public vote on any deal agreed by Parliament -- respecting the public’s right to have a say, ending the parliamentary deadlock, and leaving the Tories carrying the Brexit mess.”

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