UK Labour seeks Brexit plan to reverse poll slump

Dmitry ZAKS
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Jeremy Corbyn has refused to say whether he would campaign for Britain to remain in or leave the EU in a second referendum

Britain's main opposition Labour Party was torn by infighting Sunday as it tried to forge a coherent Brexit strategy that could reverse polls indicating a likely election drubbing.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn's moment of truth at the annual party conference comes with Britain facing the grim prospect of ending its 46-year involvement in the European Union on October 31 without a plan for future trade.

Yet the same bitter disagreements over Europe that saw Boris Johnson's right-wing Conservatives lose their working majority -- and make a general election appear inevitable -- are also fraying Labour on the left.

The 119-year-old party's support base consists of cosmopolitan city-dwelling europhiles and traditional working-class communities that rejected Brussels in the 2016 referendum.

Polls show these views have become even more entrenched today -- a polarisation that further complicates Corbyn's bid to find a unifying stance.

The strongly anti-European Brexit Party and the unapologetically pro-EU Liberal Democrats are eroding Labour's support on both flanks.

Two polls published over the weekend showed Labour losing to Johnson's party by between seven and 15 percentage points. One put it in an effective dead heat with the Liberal Democrats for second place.

- Decision delay -

Senior Labour officials reportedly approved a draft Brexit policy on Sunday that would see Britain remain in a much closer economic alliance with Europe than provided by former prime minister Theresa May's now-discarded deal.

Labour would then stage a second referendum in which voters would be given the choice of either backing the new agreement or staying in the EU.

The text reported by UK television was expected to be voted on at the full conference meeting on Monday evening.

Corbyn had earlier given every indication that Labour will stay neutral on the defining issue of British politics.

The draft text said the party would decide whether to campaign for its own Brexit agreement only after it takes power in general elections.

"It is right that the party shall only campaign in such a referendum through a one-day special conference, following the election of a Labour government," the reported text said.

- 'Stop messing around' -

Efforts to keep the peace by appeasing both wings of his party are not sitting well with voters ahead of an early election that most expect to happen within months.

An Ipsos MORI analysis found Corbyn's net satisfaction rating at -60. No opposition leader has fared worse in more than 40 years.

"This strategy of being all things to all people on Brexit -- it paid off partly in 2017 (elections), but it's not clear that it's going to pay off again," said London School of Economics analyst Sara Hobolt.

"We have got to campaign to remain," Labour's foreign affairs spokeswoman Emily Thornberry agreed. "We have got to stop messing around."

The push for Labour to reject Brexit is being resisted by a eurosceptic core of socialist Corbyn supporters who include his closest aides.

A group called Momentum that helped Corbyn become leader in 2015 unsuccessfully tried to abolish the post of the party's pro-European deputy leader Tom Watson.

"I knew there were discussions going on about the role of deputy leader, I did not know that that particular motion was going to be put forward," Corbyn admitted on BBC television.

"There was a move that didn't happen, that didn't work and I intervened."

But Momentum boss Jon Lansman said it was time to instill party discipline and for everyone to adopt Corbyn's neutrality on Europe.

"We need to make sure the deputy leader role is properly accountable to the membership," he said.

- 'Radical transformation' -

Corbyn has sought to move past Brexit and campaign on a more traditionally Labour agenda of workers' rights and clean climate policies.

Some of the proposals that could come up for a vote at the conference include a plan to give 10 percent of UK companies' shares to workers over the next 10 years.

The Financial Times called this "one of the biggest state expropriations of assets seen in a Western democracy".

Momentum also wants Labour to commit to a net zero carbon emissions target by 2030 and to "abolish private schools" in a "radical and transformational" election platform.

The various motions will be put to a vote before Corbyn concludes the conference with a keynote address Wednesday.