Pressure is building on UK opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn to switch course and back a referendum on whatever Brexit deal the government reaches with the European Union.
Labour Party activists are trying to force a debate on the issue at its annual conference in Liverpool next month. If they succeed—and there are still some hurdles—a second plebiscite that could potentially reverse Brexit becomes much more likely. Efforts to secure a shift in Labour policy are intensifying due to warnings from senior government ministers that Britain could crash out of the EU without a deal, according to Mike Buckley, a party member from Sheffield, northern England, and director of the Labour for a People’s Vote campaign group.
“More and more people can see Brexit is going to end up very, very badly for the people we got into politics for,” he said.
Labour has been trying to straddle both sides of 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 “prioritise jobs and living standards” in talks with Brussels.
With an October deadline for Theresa May’s government and the EU to reach a deal fast approaching, Labour may be forced to change tactics.
Supporting a second vote would create a clear division between Labour and May’s Conservative Party, which has consistently said politicians have a duty to deliver on the result of the referendum. But it would also be a considerable risk, as lawmakers across party lines fear that another vote would be seen as subverting democracy.
National polls are also inconclusive as to which way a second referendum would go.
Buckley’s group is urging local party branches to put forward a motion to the conference, which says that Labour should try to force an early general election and then campaign on a pledge for a referendum on any divorce deal with the EU—including an option to stay in the bloc. If there’s no election, the party should push for a referendum from opposition, it says.
If the motion is debated and passed at conference, it would put pressure on Corbyn but wouldn’t necessarily force a policy change. When the Unite trade union, Labour’s biggest financial backer, debated a similar motion this year, a compromise was brokered so as not to “tie the hands of the leadership.”
That may happen again this time, even though a survey of 1,024 Labour members last year found 78 percent supported a second referendum.
Buckley’s group has tried to make its motion as appealing as possible. To counter any claims that it amounts to an attack on Corbyn, it clearly states support for the party leader and his redistributive agenda.
Its position is bolstered by the fact that thousands of members of Momentum—the grassroots group set up to support Corbyn’s leadership—have also signed a petition calling for a second referendum to be put on the conference agenda.
More than 4,100 people have signed so far, but only an estimated 70-80 percent are Momentum members, petition organiser Alena Ivanova said.