POLITICS
14/09/2015 20:01 BST | Updated 15/09/2015 04:59 BST

'Brexit' Vow From Britain's Biggest Union As Labour's EU Confusion Grows

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn leaves his home in north London.
Anthony Devlin/PA Wire
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn leaves his home in north London.

Britain’s largest trade union will recommend leaving the European Union if David Cameron gives away workers’ rights in his renegotiation with Brussels.

The Huffington Post UK can exclusively reveal that Steve Turner, Assistant General Secretary of Unite, will today use a speech at the TUC conference to tell union members they should be prepared to walk away from the EU.

The Prime Minister has vowed a renegotiation of the UK’s relationship with Brussels, but there are concerns among trade unionists he will give away protection laws such as the working time directive and rights for agency workers.

The intervention from Unite comes as the new Labour leadership's official position on EU membership appeared to be mired in confusion.

Shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn suggested that he had received assurances from Jeremy Corbyn that he would not change the party’s position.

“Jeremy has made it very clear we will stay to fight for a better EU. We will be campaigning and are campaigning for Britain to remain part of the European Union,” he told BBC’s Radio 4 Today programme.

Asked if this applied in all circumstances, Mr Benn replied: “In all circumstances.”

But HuffPostUK has learned that Chuka Umunna did not receive similar assurances before he quit on Sunday.

And at the meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party on Monday night, Mr Corbyn was not as categorical, prompting fears among some MPs that he was keeping open the option of Labour backing a ‘Brexit’.

Mr Corbyn told his MPs the Prime Minister "can't just come back with whatever", a party spokeswoman said.

Asked if he ruled out campaigning to leave in all circumstances, she added: "He is saying we have to be really clear about the changes we want to see."

"He was clear that we need to be asking for a better Europe, and that we can't just give Cameron a blank cheque," a Labour source added.

Mr Umunna, who quit as Shadow Business Secretary yesterday, made clear in his resignation statement on Sunday that the new Labour leader had not given him sufficient guarantees that he would stick to the current policy of campaigning for an ‘In’ vote.

“It is my view that we should support the UK remaining a member of the EU, notwithstanding the outcome of any renegotiation by the Prime Minister,” he said.

“I cannot envisage any circumstances where I would be campaigning alongside those who would argue for us to leave. Jeremy has made it clear to me that he does not wholeheartedly share this view.”

HuffPost UK understands that Mr Corbyn told Mr Umunna that it was ‘unlikely but possible’ that he would campaign to quit the EU if Mr Cameron failed to maintain workers’ rights.

“Jeremy has not ruled out campaigning for Brexit and it is simply untrue to claim otherwise,” a source said.

“Jeremy and his team are saying different things to different people in an attempt to keep his Shadow Cabinet happy and his Left backers, who hate the EU, on side.”

When asked directly by HuffPost UK at a Labour hustings in July if he would rule out campaigning for an ‘Out’ vote, Mr Corbyn refused to do so.

He said at the time: “No I wouldn’t rule it out...Because Cameron quite clearly follows an agenda which is about trading away workers’ rights, is about trading away environmental protection, is about trading away much of what is in the social chapter.”

Since then, people like Alan Johnson, who leads Labour’s ‘In’ campaign, has complained that Mr Corbyn’s lack of clarity on the issue put at risk the UK’s future in the EU.

Seema Malhotra, the new Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, told BBC Radio 4’s The World Tonight that the policy position on the EU was ‘quite clear’ but admitted there would now be a ‘debate’ and a ‘review of it.

“We do need a campaign to stay in Europe. I think we have to have the conversation within the Labour party on this,” she said.

Referring to the need to campaign for ‘In’, she said: “There's a large proportion of the Parliamentary Labour Party that see that as vital for us to do, I see that as important for us to do.

“This is a debate we are going to have under Jeremy Corbyn. It's the first time we are having a review and having a discussion about this..and I think actually an important and healthy way to be doing politics”

At the TUC Conference in Brighton this afternoon, Mr Turner is expected to say: “We hope that Cameron’s efforts to weaken workers’ rights will fail but if they do not, we are issuing a warning to the Prime Minister: you will lose our members votes to stay in the EU by worsening workers’ rights.”

Unite is Britain’s biggest union, and it’s 1.4million members could have a decisive say in the referendum, which will be held before the end of 2017.

This afternoon, Mr Turner is expected to attack the role of the EU in the Greek economic crisis, saying: “For far too long EU institutions have advanced a nakedly neo-liberal agenda at the behest of member states.

“The ‘troika’ intensified the economic crisis in Greece and acted to undermine democratically elected governments; they are negotiating secret, undemocratic trade deals – CETA and TTIP - the largest single power grab by corporations we’ve ever witnessed.”

Union delegates will be asked to back a motion which states: “We are issuing a warning to the Prime Minister: you will lose our members votes to stay in the EU by worsening workers’ rights.”

Yesterday, one of Mr Corbyn’s strongest backers, the Eurosceptic MP Kelvin Hopkins, demanded to know why the Shadow Foreign Secretary had claimed Labour would campaign to say in the EU.

He said: “I’m surprised at Hilary Benn’s comments. I just wonder if that’s been cleared with the new leader of the Labour Party because obviously there’s going to be a battle between the euro-enthusiasts and those who take a more sceptical position.”