Labour activists have been given extra time to debate Brexit in a move backed by Jeremy Corbyn as divisions over Britain’s EU withdrawal were laid bare at the party’s Brighton conference.
It came as the Labour leadership sought to calm the fury of pro-EU MPs who say they have been blocked from holding a meaningful vote on Brexit during the four-day conference.
Instead of a potentially awkward debate on issues like whether the UK should stay in the European single market after Brexit, delegates will vote on a statement from Labour’s National Executive Committee setting out the party’s existing position.
Shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer told the conference that Labour could keep the UK in a form of customs union with the EU and negotiate a new single market relationship after withdrawal.
Labour wants a deal that retains the benefits of the customs union and the single market, and will not take any options off the table, he said.
However, the NEC statement said only that Labour wants “a tariff and impediment-free relationship with the European Union”, and the precise institutional form of the new trading relationship “needs to be determined by negotiation”.
The statement repeated the leadership’s position that Labour “accepts and respects” the outcome of last year’s referendum.
It confirmed the party wants a “time-limited” transition period after the March 2019 date of Brexit during which Britain would remain in the single market and customs union, but did not spell out its preferred arrangements for the longer term.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan suggested the UK may end up not leaving the EU and said the capital would need a special deal on immigration if Brexit went ahead.
Mr Khan told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I am quite clear when it comes to us leaving the EU – if we do leave the European Union – there will have to be a new deal with the European Union.”
Shadow chancellor John McDonnell was forced to deny that the leadership was seeking to quash debate on Brexit, after delegates from local parties and unions chose eight other subjects as priorities for debate.
The Corbyn-backing Momentum movement had urged supporters not to back the Brexit motion.
Members used a Monday-morning debate on a report from the leadership on the party’s Brexit policy to make pro-EU speeches in the main hall, including calls to reverse the decision to leave. It was later announced a vote would be held in the afternoon on the NEC statement.
Local party delegate Cameron Clack was greeted with some booing when he told the conference that Labour had voted away its chance to remain in the single market.
Another activist, Owen Dickinson from Sedgefield, was cheered as he defended the decision not to choose the Brexit motion for debate.
“We’re debating Brexit today,” he said. “We did not need to take up more time to discuss Brexit when we can use it to discuss things like our NHS.”
Asked whether the leadership was trying to dodge scrutiny of its position, Mr McDonnell told ITV1’s Good Morning Britain: “I wouldn’t characterise it that way.
“In our new politics, we are saying conference needs to be controlled by the delegates. They decide what we will debate, not the leadership.”
“This is democracy at work,” he said.
Mr McDonnell said he believed the decision not to prioritise Brexit for debate was motivated by “a feeling that there needs to be a bit more consensus-building, rather than dividing the party at the moment”.