Britain’s main opposition Labour Party was set Monday to decide on a new Brexit strategy at a fractious conference that has piled pressure on leader Jeremy Corbyn to come out and openly campaign to remain in the European Union.
Labour’s identity crisis is being played out as Britain speeds toward an October 31 departure date without an exit agreement and a likely election to help resolve the stalemate.
Opinion polls show Corbyn’s efforts to unite both the europhile and isolationist wings of his party by either delaying a Brexit decision or leaving it in voters’ hands have led to a dramatic drop in support.
Two polls published over the weekend put Labour 15 percentage points behind Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservatives and in danger of losing second place to the unapologetically pro-EU Liberal Democrats.
Grass roots activists spent hours deep into Sunday night trying to come up with a single Brexit motion that could be put up for a vote at the conference on Monday.
They ended up with three.
One motion backed by regional party branches says Labour “must reflect the overwhelming view of its members and voters, who want to stay in the EU.
“Labour will therefore campaign energetically for a public vote and to stay in the EU in the referendum, while recognising the rights of those who want to argue another view.”
A dissenting proposal backed by the big unions offers “a public vote on a deal agreed with the EU giving people a final say between a credible leave option and remain”.
It would not see Labour officially campaign for either option and instead try to “build maximum consensus”.
The third motion proposed by Corbyn himself and backed by the executive would see the party come to some sort of decision “through a special one-day conference, following the election of a Labour government”.
Top members of Corbyn’s shadow government insist that they are members of 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 which backs Britain charting its own course.
“We must not just campaign to remain but we must lead the campaign to remain,” Labour’s foreign affairs spokeswoman Emily Thornberry said on the sidelines of the conference in the south coast resort of Brighton.
Unite union boss Len McCluskey shot back that pro-EU party leaders such as 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 said.
Labour’s finance spokesman John McDonnell – a Corbyn ally who now backs a campaign to get Brexit called off – rejected speculation that the party was in disarray.
“Do not mistake democracy for division. It isn’t,” he told BBC radio.
“What we’re seeing is an honest debate. And that’s what Jeremy Corbyn’s ‘s Labour Party is all about.”
Corbyn has persevered with efforts to look past Brexit and campaign in a general election on bread and butter issues such as healthcare 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.