POLITICS
30/04/2019 16:41 BST | Updated 30/04/2019 22:46 BST

Labour Fudges Brexit Referendum Pledge For European Parliament Elections

Party's ruling body rejects Tom Watson plan for public vote on any deal.

Labour will fight the European parliament elections without a firm pledge to hold a fresh referendum on Brexit, its ruling body has decided.

In a bid to unite the party’s warring factions, the National Executive Committee (NEC) decided the manifesto for its MEP candidates should include a reference to the “option” of a fresh public vote on the UK’s membership of the EU.

But the NEC rejected more radical proposals, pushed by deputy leader Tom Watson and the TSSA union, for a tougher anti-Brexit stance that would have committed the party to a referendum on any deal, not just Theresa May’s.

HuffPost UK understands that the party’s Euro campaign leaflets will now be amended to reflect the new position, following a huge backlash from MPs and MEPs over a draft version that omitted any mention of a new public vote.

After nearly five hours of debate, the 39-strong NEC decided to effectively re-state the party’s policy on Brexit that was hammered out at Labour’s conference last year.

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.”

Some pro-referendum MPs welcomed the news, saying that the public vote option would be “clearly stated for the first time ever in a manifesto”. But some party members were furious at the failure to agree a stronger policy.

The TSSA union tabled an amendment to the party leadership’s manifesto wording, to commit the party to a confirmatory public vote on any Brexit deal.

Union rep Andi Fox made a short but passionate speech, but it failed to win round the room and the amendment was “easily defeated”, according to one NEC source.

Only around 11 members of the ruling body were in favour. NEC chair Wendy Nichols refused to say the exactly how the vote split, stating only that it was defeated.

Jeremy Corbyn voted personally against the motion, as did all nine of the Momentum-backed NEC representatives of local constituency Labour parties (CLPs).  A couple of NEC members abstained, while several were absent.

Youth rep Lara McNeill argued that the real split was not geographic but based on class lines, suggesting that the party could not let down its working class voters who backed Leave in 2016.

Veteran Labour MP Margaret Beckett spoke forcefully in favour of the need for a clearer line on a referendum, but the main opposition to the TSSA plan came from two shadow cabinet ministers, Jon Trickett and Rebecca Long-Bailey, one NEC source said.

Trickett, who delivered the shadow cabinet report, was particularly keen to stress that loyalty to the leadership was crucial. “There was some irritation at that, given he broke the whip in Parliament on the issue recently,” one source said.

“This is in some ways an even weaker version of conference. If it’s a fudge, it’s a soggy fudge,” an NEC member said.

“The fact is this Euro campaign is going to be like a second Brexit referendum whether anyone likes it or not. Farage and TIG have turned it into that and the voters will ask us ‘where do you stand?’  Today was not a winner for getting votes.”

But another NEC member said: “It just makes total sense to stick to the conference composite. We don’t have the power or right to tear that up.”

Labour’s carefully-worded conference motion, agreed last September, stated that “if we cannot get a general election, Labour must support all options remaining on the table, including campaigning for a public vote”.

Since then, the party in parliament has strengthened and refined the policy, with its MPs backing an official opposition amendment for a “confirmatory ballot” of the public that would provide a “lock” on a Tory exit deal.

Watson has pushed hard for a tougher and clearer policy on a referendum, boosted by a growing movement among grassroots activists who have demanded a so-called people’s Vote, with remaining in the EU on any ballot paper.

A Labour spokesman said: “Labour’s European Elections manifesto was agreed at the NEC today and it will be published soon.

“Labour is the only party which represents both people who supported Leave and Remain. We are working to bring the country together after the chaos and crisis created by the Tories.”

Some backers of a people’s vote, like Stephen Doughty, welcomed the manifesto wording.

But Bridget Phillipson was more critical, describing it as the “bare minimum needed” to get voters to back Labour in the Euro elections on May 23.

“The manifesto’s mealy-mouthed wording still maintains the fiction that there is a deal out there that can satisfy all the promises made three years ago, avoid real costs to jobs and living standards, or end the endless crisis around Brexit,” she said.

“Today Labour has done the bare minimum needed and I can only hope it will be enough to secure the support of all those millions of our voters demanding the final say on Brexit.”

Outgoing London Labour MEP Mary Honeyball was also unhappy.

But frontbencher Gloria de Piero – who represents a heavily Leave-voting Labour area in the East Midlands – welcomed the fact that there was no firm pledge for a referendum.

Former Labour MP Mike Gapes, who now represents the Change UK party, said: “If you’re a Labour supporter and dismayed by Labour’s latest fudge on Brexit, send Corbyn a message by lending Change UK your vote.”

Labour MP Jess Phillips told an ITV podcast: “I do think we’ll get a drubbing in the European elections...Unless we have a clear message for people.”

Even before the NEC meeting, Watson walked out of a shadow cabinet meeting, in protest at not being allowed to see the precise wording of the manifesto.

After he left, fellow frontbenchers were shown the confidential phrasing via video screen, rather than a hard printed copy. All members of the NEC were told the full wording.

Earlier on Tuesday, more MEP candidates signed a personal pledge to campaign on a referendum with “choice between a Brexit deal and the option to Remain in the EU”. A total of 34 Labour candidates have committed to the proposal.

Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt told BBC Radio 4 that the idea of a fresh referendum or May’s deal was now “the central argument in British politics.

“The central argument is do we resolve this issue by having a rerun, as some in the Labour Party… would like, which I happen to think would be disastrous... or do we resolve this by delivering Brexit and then bringing the country together by showing the 48% who voted Remain that this is not the Brexit of their worst nightmares.”