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Brexit: Labour supports a referendum with caveats

People's Vote supportersImage copyright Getty Images

Labour’s governing body has agreed to support a further referendum on Brexit under certain circumstances.

The National Executive Committee met to decide the wording of its manifesto for May’s European elections.

It rejected the idea of campaigning for a referendum under all circumstances – as supported by deputy leader Tom Watson and many Labour Party members.

But the party will demand a public vote if it cannot get changes to the government’s deal or an election.

Labour is “the only party which represents both people who supported Leave and Remain”, a spokesperson said.

The National Executive Committee (NEC) oversees the overall direction of the party and is made up of representatives including shadow cabinet members, MPs, councillors and trade unions.

A Labour source said: “The NEC agreed the manifesto which will be fully in line with Labour’s existing policy to support Labour’s alternative plan and if we can’t get the necessary changes to the government’s deal, or a general election, to back the option of a public vote.”

The UK will have to take part in European Parliamentary elections on 23 May unless a Brexit deal is accepted by MPs before then.

Labour agreed a policy at its last conference that if Parliament voted down the government’s withdrawal deal with the EU – which it has effectively done three times – or talks ended in no-deal, there should be a general election.

But if it could not force one, conference agreed that the party “must support all options remaining on the table, including campaigning for a public vote”.

Since then, though, Labour has entered into cross-party talks with the Conservatives to see if they can reach a consensus on how to get a Brexit deal through Parliament so that Britain can leave.

Many Labour members wanted the party to make its agreement to any deal conditional on it being put to a public vote – what Labour calls a “confirmatory ballot”.

Labour have not yet made clear what their proposed referendum would be on, but a party briefing paper to MPs published earlier this year said it would need to have “a credible Leave option and Remain” on the ballot paper.

Labour’s divisions over Brexit

Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson is campaigning for a vote on any deal – including one that Jeremy Corbyn might negotiate.

An ally of the party leader on the NEC , Claudia Webbe, has denounced Tom Watson as “divisive”.

But, in truth, he is merely highlighting the divisions which are already there.

Some Labour MPs in Leave areas want no mention of a second referendum – a view shared by some of the leader’s shadow cabinet allies.

Others can live with the current formulation of a heavily caveated commitment to a referendum as a last resort.

But the need to fight European elections has led 34 of the party’s candidates to say that this ambiguity is no longer sustainable, and around 100 MPs from across the party agree with them.

They wanted a clear commitment to a referendum under all circumstances.

Read Iain’s analysis in full

Speaking ahead of the NEC’s decision, Tom Watson, the party’s deputy leader, said “the context has changed” since the 2018 party conference and Labour should now throw its full support behind a second referendum “to heal the divide in the country”.

But shadow international trade secretary Barry Gardiner said it would be a change in Labour’s policy, which is to “try to deliver on what people voted for” in the 2016 referendum.

After a meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party on Monday night, MP Neil Coyle – who backs a public vote – said he had lost 500 members in his own constituency over the issue.

He said the NEC should “stand up for members or expect members to leave”, claiming they could join Change UK – the new party made up of from former Labour and Tory MPs – instead, which is campaigning for a People’s Vote.

Image caption Labour’s Shami Chakrabarti says a fresh public vote could be “the only means of breaking the deadlock”

The latest talks between the government and Labour on Monday were described as “positive” and “productive” by the PM’s de facto deputy David Lidington.

Labour’s shadow environment secretary Sue Hayman said there had been “really constructive discussion”, with the two parties “getting much more into the nuts and bolts of the detail”, and said that she believed the government was “open to moving forward in our direction”.

But Labour’s shadow attorney general Shami Chakrabarti said it was for Labour frontbenchers involved in the Brexit talks with government to tell the NEC whether there was “any hope now of a sensible, jobs-first Brexit deal” or whether “the only means of breaking the deadlock is a confirmatory vote”.

Labour’s position on Brexit

June 2017 – Labour’s general election manifesto accepts referendum result

28 September 2018 – Labour agrees if a general election cannot be achieved it “must support all options… including campaigning for a public vote”

November 2018 – Shadow chancellor John McDonnell says Labour will “inevitably” back a second referendum if unable to secure general election

16 January 2019 – 71 Labour MPs say they support a public vote

6 February 2019 – Mr Corbyn writes a letter to Mrs May seeking five changes to her Brexit policy with no mention of a “People’s Vote”

25 February 2019 – Labour says it will back a public vote if its proposed Brexit deal is rejected

14 March 2019 – Labour orders its MPs to abstain on an amendment calling for a second referendum

27 March 2019 – The party instructs its MPs to support Margaret Beckett’s amendment which calls for a confirmatory public vote on any Brexit deal

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