Steve Turner, assistant general secretary at Unite and a favourite to replace Len McCluskey, has posted a video message in which he told the party: “No sitting on the fence, no abstentions, no messing about.”
Starmer is under pressure from several of his shadow ministers and many pro-Remain party members to abstain or vote against a Johnson deal, with many believing it undermines Labour’s ability to criticise a bad agreement.
But he is also facing calls from both the left and centre of his party not to send the wrong message to former Labour voters who switched to the Tories in 2019, while retaining the ability to improve on the trade deal if Labour wins power.
In the new video, seen by HuffPost UK, Turner says: “Just days to go, we say to Boris Johnson: get the deal done. And to Labour we say: no sitting on the fence, no abstentions, no messing about.
“We’ve left the EU and a vote against the deal now will have one outcome: a no-deal. A no-deal will be catastrophic for jobs, our manufacturing heartlands and our economy.
“A deal, however thin and failing, will still provide a foundation to build on over coming months and years. We can plug the holes and fill the gaps.”
The Labour leader has been warned that if he tries to whip his MPs to vote for a Tory Brexit deal he risks resignations from his shadow ministerial team, albeit at a junior level.
Starmer gave a hint recently that he would back a deal rather than abstain, when he said to Boris Johnson: “If there is a deal, then my party will vote in the national interest – not on party lines, as he is doing.”
He has vowed to scrutinise closely any deal brought back from Brussels, but trade unions like Unite fear Labour could repeat the mistakes of the 2019 election when Jeremy Corbyn was seen as indecisive on the key issue.
Amid intense speculation that a deal is close between the UK and the EU, parliament still has to ratify one in legislation before December 31.
Emergency plans are being drafted to give the Commons and the Lords time to pass the treaty.
Labour’s shadow trade minister Lucy Powell told HuffPost UK’s Commons People podcast this month that the party “can’t keep putting two fingers up to people if we want them to vote for us again”.
She said: “I think having a skinny deal or whatever, a kind of basis of future negotiation and relationship-building, is very important, even more so because of the economic crisis and the pandemic we’re in – businesses need that certainty.”