By Benjamin Fox
(EurActiv) — Labour, the UK’s biggest opposition party, has finally backed a second referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU, bringing an end to several years of uncertainty and equivocation by saying it would support the Remain option.
In an email sent to party members on Tuesday (9 July), Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said that “whoever becomes the new prime minister should have the confidence to put their deal, or No Deal, back to the people in a public vote.”
“In those circumstances, I want to make it clear that Labour would campaign for Remain against either No Deal or a Tory deal that does not protect the economy and jobs.”
It is the trade unions, most of whom are Labour-affiliated and major donors to party funds, that are seen as the decisive factor in swaying Corbyn. On Monday, the major trade unions agreed to support holding a new referendum on any deal which takes the UK out of the EU.
The Labour leader has faced sustained criticism from his party’s MPs and ordinary members over his perceived equivocation over Brexit, instead calling for an alternative Brexit plan in which the UK would stay in a permanent customs union with the EU, or a general election.
But Labour’s customs union plan was quickly ruled out during cross-party talks with Theresa May’s government on a possible compromise plan, after MPs rejected the government‘s Withdrawal Agreement. The talks collapsed in May, after having made little progress.
Although most of Labour’s members and MPs support EU membership, a large number of the party’s parliamentary seats are in constituencies where a majority voted to leave the EU in June 2016. In a nod to these tensions, Corbyn conceded that Brexit had been “divisive in our communities and sometimes in our party too”.
The party’s confused position was widely blamed for Labour slumping to a dismal 14% in May’s European elections, with around half their 500,000 party members voting for other parties, mostly for the pro-European Greens and Liberal Democrats.
Conservative party members will elect their new leader and prime minister on July 22, and both the favourite, Boris Johnson, and his rival Jeremy Hunt, have promised to take the UK out of the EU by October 31 with or without a Brexit deal.
The two candidates have also ruled out the prospect of either a snap election or a second referendum. However, forcing through a No Deal Brexit would be likely to prompt opposition parties to table a vote of no confidence in a bid to collapse the government and lead to a snap election.