Labour divisions exposed as conference vote on Brexit ruled out
Many pro-EU MPs were critical of the decision.
Labour divisions over Europe erupted after conference delegates agreed not to push the issue of Brexit to a vote.
The decision meant Jeremy Corbyn avoided a divisive clash over Labour’s Brexit policy on the conference floor at the gathering in Brighton.
But anger boiled over among pro-EU MPs, with one branding the decision “f***ing ridiculous” while a member of Mr Corbyn’s frontbench team said the decision was “strange”.
The pro-Corbyn Momentum movement had used its special conference mobile app to suggest that supporters should back other topics for a vote rather than a Brexit motion.
Mr Corbyn is resisting pressure from europhiles in the party, who want him to commit Labour to keeping the UK permanently in the European single market and customs union after Brexit.
In a TV interview as the conference opened in Brighton, he made clear he has deep reservations about the restrictions which single market membership could place on a future Labour government’s ability to intervene to support UK industry.
Meanwhile, close Corbyn ally and Labour campaigns chief Andrew Gwynne acknowledged that the issue had the potential to inflict grave damage on the party.
Asked whether wrangling between Remain and Leave supporters could tear Labour apart, he told a fringe meeting hosted by the Huffington Post: “It could, if we’re not careful.”
Delegates will discuss Brexit on the conference floor on Monday but there will be no vote.
Local parties and trade unions chose Grenfell Tower, rail services, growth and investment, public sector pay, workers’ rights, the NHS, housing and social care as the eight topics for full debate and votes, with Brexit motions failing to win the necessary backing.
At a rally for the Blairite Progress wing of the party, MPs lined up to condemn the decision not to vote on Brexit.
Shadow Treasury minister Jonathan Reynolds said: “It’s never good when the party starts talking to itself rather than to the country.
“To not be discussing Brexit it seems, at the least, a strange decision.”
MP Jess Phillips told the Progress rally it was “totally and utterly unacceptable” adding: “That is, frankly, f****ing ridiculous.”
Pro-EU MP Alison McGovern said she was “gutted” and continued: “I worry that it’s going to mean that our party doesn’t have the chance to debate properly one of the biggest issues going on.”
On Twitter, former shadow cabinet minister Heidi Alexander said she was “gobsmacked” and “we will be a laughing stock”.
Former Cabinet minister Lord Hain claimed there had been “rigging” of the process adding: “So much for ‘democratising party’.”
MP Ian Murray said: “I hope there wasn’t a leadership whip on Momentum and other organisations to stop this critical debate.”
I hope there wasn't a leadership whip on momentum and other organisations to stop this critical debate? https://t.co/AAfimOL0EL— Ian Murray (@IanMurrayMP) September 24, 2017
Speaking to BBC1’s Andrew Marr Show, Mr Corbyn said he wanted to ensure “tariff-free access to the European market”.
But he added: “I would also say that we need to look very carefully at the terms of our trade relationship, because at the moment we are a part of the single market and that has within it restrictions on state aid and state spending and pressures on it, through the European Union, to privatise rail and other services.
“I think we need to be careful about the powers we need as a national government.”
He suggested that EU rules could have prevented him as prime minister from intervening to prop up Britain’s steel industry during its recent crisis, and would block a future Labour government from investing in key industries.
Pressed on whether free movement should continue from the EU after Brexit, Mr Corbyn said abuses of the system by rogue employers had to stop but there would still be “a lot” of movement.
“We have to recognise that in the future we are going to need people to work in Europe and people from Europe are going to need to work here,” he said.
Shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer will set out Labour’s approach in a speech on Monday.
Sir Keir has previously said that under a Labour government Britain would remain in both the single market and customs union for a transitional period of two to four years after the official Brexit date in 2019.
Shadow chancellor John McDonnell said there should be “an element of flexibility” to extend any Brexit transition period beyond the two years suggested by Theresa May in her speech in Florence on Friday.
Asked if the transition could last as long as four years under Labour’s plans, Mr McDonnell told ITV1’s Peston on Sunday: “I can’t see it being that long, but we will see.”
Mr Corbyn said a transitional period should last “as long as necessary”, but asked whether it could last as long as a decade he said “no, I don’t think so”.
Liberal Democrat Brexit spokesman Tom Brake said: “Corbyn’s anti-EU wing of the Labour party have won the day. Following pressure from his Momentum pressure group the party have ducked away from debating the biggest issue currently facing the country at their conference.”