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Labour row over Brexit policy ahead of conference showdown

Delegates at the party’s conference in Brighton will vote on whether Labour should back remaining in the European Union.

John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn on stage at the Labour conference (Gareth Fuller/PA)
John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn on stage at the Labour conference (Gareth Fuller/PA)

By David Hughes, PA Political Editor

Rifts within the Labour movement over Brexit have deepened ahead of a showdown over whether the party should campaign to stay in the European Union.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has called for a neutral position going into a general election, saying that he would negotiate a new Brexit deal with Brussels which would then be put to a referendum.

Under his approach the party’s position on how to campaign would not be decided until a special conference, after the expected general election.

But delegates at Labour’s conference in Brighton will vote on whether the party should decide now on whether to campaign to stay in the European Union, even if that means rejecting a deal Mr Corbyn has negotiated with the EU.

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(PA Graphics)

Shadow chancellor John McDonnell, who has said he will campaign for a Remain vote in the promised referendum, said the process put forward by Mr Corbyn was “logical” and insisted “there isn’t any war in the Labour Party” over the issue.

“What we’re saying is, when we know what the deal is, we’ll have a special conference and then determine our position,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today.

“It’s very difficult for people to determine their position in advance of knowing the detail of that deal, but my view, actually I think, because I campaigned for Remain, I can’t see at the moment a better deal being achieved. And that’s my view.

“That’s why I’m saying I’m happy to go along with this logical sequence. And I’m happy for others to challenge me and say, ‘actually, no, this is a better deal’ – I’d like that debate.”

Shadow cabinet ministers including Emily Thornberry and Tom Watson have called for the party to back a Remain vote now, rather than wait for a special conference after the election.

Their actions led to Unite union boss Len McCluskey suggesting they should either get in line or “step aside” from their shadow cabinet roles.

Mr McDonnell told Sky News: “Len is being Len. We are working together as a party to make sure the people have a choice and the people will decide.”

The result of the Brexit vote will hinge on whether the unions decide to back Mr Corbyn’s position, which was set out in a statement from the party’s National Executive Committee (NEC).

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Len McCluskey applauds during the Labour Party Conference (Gareth Fuller/PA)

It is understood that Unison will vote against the  NEC statement on Brexit later today at the party’s annual conference, and support the motion calling for Labour to campaign for remain.

A source said the move was aimed at giving a clear and unambiguous message on Brexit to help bring about the election of a Labour government.

Most other unions are expected to support the NEC statement, with Mr McCluskey pleading with delegates to back Mr Corbyn.

He told the conference: “I implore you, please give Jeremy the support he needs later so that prime minister Corbyn can lead us to a bright new dawn.”

Mr Corbyn’s NEC statement was emailed round the body and endorsed without a formal meeting on Saturday, despite opposition from some members.

Jon Lansman, boss of the Corbyn-supporting Momentum campaign group and an NEC member, said the process had been a “travesty”.

“There was no meeting, no discussion, no consultation with the membership.

“On one of the biggest issues of the day, this is a travesty. Across the membership there are many different views on Brexit, and on conference floor members should feel free to vote with their conscience.”

Shadow foreign secretary Ms Thornberry was applauded after restating her desire to campaign for remain in any second Brexit referendum.

She also told delegates: “With your endorsement today, conference, with the instructions that I hope you give us today, I believe we must strive night and day, whatever it takes, to keep Britain in the European Union.”

Before the Brexit showdown, Mr McDonnell was using his keynote speech to confirm plans for Labour to fund free personal care for elderly people in England.

The pledge, which would cost an estimated £6 billion a year in 2020/21, would more than double the number of people receiving state-funded support, Labour said.

In a rally on Sunday night, Mr McDonnell indicated that a pledge to reform the social security system, including scrapping Universal Credit, would be included in Labour’s first Queen’s Speech.

He said there has to be a proper social security “safety net”.

“That has to be on the basis of enabling people to have a decent quality of life with an adequate income.

“That has to mean getting rid of the bloody Universal Credit.”

PA

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