Divided UK Labour struggles with Brexit, despite Corbyn’s re-election

Conference of the Labour leadership, 2016. [The Labour Party / Twitter]

Distracted by a bitter leadership contest, Britain’s main opposition Labour party has struggled to present a vision of Brexit to challenge the ruling Conservatives – and many fear the re-election of Jeremy Corbyn will do little to change this.

There are concerns the lack of an alternative could result in a “hard Brexit”, where Britain agrees to leave the European single market as the price of cutting EU immigration – and forges a free market-driven future on its own.

“It’s about jobs, as well as environmental policies, workers’ rights or maternity rights that we fought for years to get,” Glenis Willmott, an MEP and the leader of European Parliamentary Labour Party, told AFP.

“We have to make sure that we are part of the discussion, and we are not just sat on the sidelines,” she added.

Brexit divisions

Labour was against Brexit and when the result of the June 23 referendum came in, shocked MPs launched a coup against leftist leader Corbyn, who they accused of a lacklustre campaign.

The 67-year-old on Saturday saw off an ensuing leadership challenge, but many Labour members remain livid at his apparent ambivalence on the EU, still talking about feeling “stabbed in the back”.

“He doesn’t see Brexit as a central issue and he doesn’t have a very fixed position of what the policy should look like,” said Simon Usherwood, reader in European studies at the University of Surrey.

Prime Minister Theresa May’s government has also yet to outline its strategy for Brexit, which could present an opportunity for Labour to shape the terms of the debate, the analyst said.

“If someone was bold enough to set out a vision then I think they could go a long way. But Jeremy Corbyn is not going to be that man,” he told AFP.

Immigration concerns

Labour’s foreign affairs spokeswoman Emily Thornberry blamed the Conservatives for Brexit and said they could not be allowed to set its terms.

“It does not give them a mandate to put themselves in a locked room and do whatever the hell they want with this country,” she told party activists.

“We have to leave but we have to get the best deal possible.”

She acknowledged the party had yet to set out its strategy – “we are still considering” – noting that it depended on the position of the Conservatives and other European leaders.

But the lack of a strategy also reflects how Labour is divided over whether to sacrifice access to the single market, which most Labour MPs want, to restore control over migration.

More than one third of Labour voters backed Brexit, largely over concerns about the impact of a huge influx of European workers on wages and public services.

Corbyn says controlling migration is not the answer, but some MPs fear that ignoring voters’ worries will drive them into the arms of the anti-EU UK Independence Party (UKIP).

“The big challenge now is between respecting the result of the referendum and maintaining some of those things about the European Union that most of us campaigned for,” said MP Rachel Reeves.

Second vote mulled

The government has refused to give any details of its plan or the progress of talks so far, but there is speculation that lawmakers may have a vote before formal exit talks begin, likely early in 2017.

Commission calm in face of UK government's conflicting Brexit messages

The European Commission insisted Friday (23 September) it was patiently waiting for the UK government to trigger Article 50, in the face of a spate of mixed messages coming out of London about the shape of a Brexit deal, or even its own objectives.

Corbyn has held meetings with European socialists and is planning a conference later this year together with European trade unionists to discuss the way forward.

Labour lawmakers in the European Parliament have also been discussing their strategy, including whether to put forward their proposals now or wait for the Tory plan.

“Until we know what is exactly the deal they want, it’s extremely difficult,” said Willmott, but added: “I spoke to Jeremy. I think he will speak out more.”

Richard Corbett, a Labour MEP for northern England, mooted an idea put forward by Corbyn’s challenger, Owen Smith, saying: “We should not rule out a referendum on a Brexit deal.”

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