Brexit: Labour hints at backing deal without referendum

Rebecca Long-Bailey’s comments cause deep alarm among predominantly Remain membership

Keir Starmer and Rebecca Long-Bailey are both running in the leadership race
(Image credit: Niklas Halle'n/AFP/Getty Images)

Labour is prepared to back the government’s Brexit deal without the promise of a second referendum, one of the party’s chief negotiators has hinted, causing deep alarm among the predominantly Remain-supporting membership.

The talks between Labour and Theresa May’s team, which began last month, have “prompted clashes”, says Politics Home, with shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer accusing the prime minister of refusing to budge on her red lines, while May accused Labour of “dragging its feet” in order to force Britain to take part in EU elections next month.

Yet despite widespread belief in Westminster that cross-party talks are doomed to failure, the shadow business secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey insisted negotiations have been productive and “gone into a lot of detail”. She hinted that the government was signalling a willingness to compromise on some issues, including workers’ rights.

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Asked by Sky News’s Sophie Ridge whether a second Brexit referendum was a “red line” for Labour in the talks, Long-Bailey said: “I wouldn’t couch it in terms of a second referendum, but our party policy has always been that firstly we want to get a Brexit deal that puts our economy and living standards first and protects our environmental protections, workplace protections, health and safety standards.

“If we don’t get a deal that satisfies those objectives – if it’s a damaging deal, a damaging Tory Brexit deal, or there’s a risk of us moving towards a no deal – in that circumstance, we’ve said that all options should be on the table, and that includes campaigning for a public vote.”

The Guardian suggests that “her careful recital of the party’s conference motion will infuriate MPs and activists pushing for Labour to make a referendum a central part of its policy platform for next month’s European parliament elections”.

The was widespread anger last week after a draft campaign leaflet, believed to have been drawn up Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s team without consulting the rest of the shadow cabinet, made no mention of a second referendum.

Labour’s manifesto for the European elections is due to be agreed at a meeting of the ruling National Executive Committee (NEC) tomorrow. Ahead of the meeting, 90 MPs and MEPs wrote to Corbyn urging him to ensure a confirmatory vote is part of the package Labour offers to voters in May.

Starmer and shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry have both previously suggested that any deal agreed should be signed off by the public and, “in a sign of the Brexit divisions plaguing Labour's top team, deputy Labour leader Tom Watson encouraged members to lobby NEC representatives ‘if you want them to support a confirmatory ballot on a Brexit deal’”, reports The Independent.

“Polls have shown a majority of Labour members back a second referendum on Brexit” says the London Evening Standard, “but the issue is hugely divisive in the party hierarchy, with fears it would wreck the party's election chances in Brexit-voting former industrial heartlands”.

Despite a concerted effort by Labour Remainers, it appears “Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred position of characterising a new public vote only as an option is likely to prevail, because he seems to have retained the backing of most of the leaders of the big trade unions”, writes Robert Peston in the Spectator.

Out of the so-called big five trade unions - Unison, Unite, the GMB, Usdaw and the CWU – only the GMB has signalled a strong preference for a confirmatory referendum.

“If this turns out to be so, it would be a blow to a majority of Labour members and probably a majority of its MPs too - who want a confirmatory referendum and who also believe that the party would win the largest share of votes in the EU elections if it in effect became the referendum party” says Peston.

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