Labour has dashed the hopes of anti-Brexit campaigners by blocking moves to formally commit the party to holding a second EU referendum.
A tense, five-hour meeting of local party and union delegates agreed instead to debate a motion that merely kept open the option of a ‘People’s Vote’ on whatever exit deal Theresa May hammers out with Brussels.
A key line in the motion states: “If we cannot get a general election Labour must support all options remaining on the table, including campaigning for a public vote”
The compromise, which was swiftly dismissed by some critics as a “disappointing fudge”, falls short of calls for the party conference in Liverpool to explicitly back a second referendum.
But one source in the People’s Vote campaign was pleased that some progress had been made: “This motion is clear movement from the party. They know where their members are and they know where their voters are.”
The motion sets out the sequencing towards a possible referendum: Labour will vote down May’s deal if it fails the party’s six tests on jobs and the economy; if the Parliament agrees and May still refuses to call a general election, then Labour could back a poll on the deal.
A senior Labour source said: “After a number of hours of discussion and debate, the composite meeting has agreed a motion on Brexit that will be taken to the conference floor.
“There was a wide range of views shared and discussed, with people expressing different opinions on the matter of a further referendum.
“The meeting was carried out in a cordial and respectful manner that recognises the complexities of Brexit. There was consensus in the room opposing the Tories’ chaotic approach to the Brexit negotiations, the fact that the final deal should be judged against the six tests, and that a general election should be called as soon as any deal is voted down by parliament.
“It was then agreed that if we cannot get a general election Labour must support all options remaining on the table, including campaigning for a public vote.
“Members expressed a significant amount of admiration for the work Jeremy, Keir and the shadow cabinet is doing on Brexit.”
One former senior Labour staffer tweeted his disappointment.
However, Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer is just as keen as Corbyn on maintaining the party’s delicate balance of keeping on board both Remain and Leave voters.
The party has been bitterly split over the issue in recent months.
The overwhelming majority of party members back a second referendum and the conference has been dominated by delegates wearing T-shirts that declare ‘Love Corbyn, Hate Brexit’.
Yet although many local constituency parties and key unions such as the GMB and TSSA back the idea, major unions like Unite are keen to avoid tying the hands of Corbyn and Starmer.
Many Shadow Cabinet figures fear that Labour could lose voters in its heartlands if it tries to unpick the referendum result of two years ago.
Some pro-Remain members were pleased to have at least tightened up the motion to include the possibility of voting to stay in the EU. One earlier draft suggested only a vote ‘on the terms of Brexit’.
During the marathon meeting, some delegates warned that if the party committed to a new poll, May could turn it into a choice between her deal or no deal.
Jeremy Corbyn and Tom Watson both said on Sunday that they would be “bound” by the democratic decision of the conference, even if that meant formal backing for a People’s Vote.
But the watered down motion, which will be subject to a vote by the whole conference on Tuesday, is sure to dishearten those hoping Labour would allow the public to reverse the ‘Leave’ vote from the 2016 referendum.
Earlier, Unite general secretary Len McCluskey told BBC Radio 5 Live that even if there were to be a referendum, it should only be on the terms of Brexit and should not include the option of staying in the EU.
More than 120 local parties tabled motions on Brexit, dwarfing the number tabled for motions on the NHS, housing and schools.
Under Labour rules the party’s ‘compositing’ meeting has to hammer out a consensus on the wording of motions, before putting them to a vote later in the week.
Ian Murray, Labour MP for Edinburgh South and a member of the Best for Britain campaign, said: “There has been unprecedented demand from local Labour branches for the party to back a People’s Vote, thousands have attended today’s march in Liverpool, and opinion polls have demonstrated overwhelming support among members.
“When it comes to opposing Brexit, members are clear – they want unequivocal support for a People’s Vote, not some disappointing fudge by the leadership that simply leaves options on the table.
“By failing to give conference delegates the choice to firmly back a People’s Vote, Labour will be betraying hundreds of thousands of its own members, and millions of voters across the UK. So much for the promise from Jeremy Corbyn of membership-led party policy making.”