(Bloomberg) -- The U.K.’s main opposition Labour Party took another step toward formally opposing Brexit, as the trades unions that fund it and help set its policy agreed to back a second referendum.
In a decision on Monday, union chiefs said Labour’s policy must be to put any Brexit deal back to voters to approve -- and that the party must oppose leaving the European Union on any terms negotiated by Britain’s ruling Conservative government.
The development opens the door to Labour campaigning to keep Britain inside the EU in another referendum that could reverse the result of the 2016 Brexit vote.
Labour members of Parliament who oppose Brexit welcomed the move, and urged the party to complete the journey. “It is a step forward,” Labour MP Bridget Phillipson said in an emailed statement.
“If we fail to vigorously demand such a People’s Vote it will only hinder our efforts to reconnect with millions of voters and hundreds of thousands of members who feel deeply let down by our party over Brexit. They just want to know -- without ‘ifs or buts’ -- that we will give them the final say and campaign to stay in the EU.”
The government -- and both candidates to succeed Prime Minister Theresa May -- oppose a second referendum. But senior politicians in the government and the opposition have argued that a new plebiscite may be the only way to break the deadlock. Britain’s Parliament has rejected the proposed EU exit deal, and also voted against leaving without a deal.
Although Labour campaigned against Brexit in the 2016 referendum, it said afterward that it accepted the result, and fought the 2017 election on a policy of leaving the EU. Since then the party’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn, a lifelong euroskeptic has been forced to shift his position repeatedly, under pressure to oppose the government’s plans.
The pressure has come not just from activists and members of Parliament but from voters. Although Labour beat expectations in the 2017 election to rob May of her majority, it has since sunk in the polls, and it is now in a four-way tie with the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats and the new insurgent Brexit Party.
In European elections in May, Labour came third, behind the Liberal Democrats and the Brexit Party, a damaging blow to the main opposition at a time when the government is in chaos. It was a sign that Corbyn’s attempt to avoid talking about Brexit was hurting Labour with the electorate.
The Labour Party did not immediately respond to the unions’ announcement and the position is not yet officially Labour’s policy. Some Labour MPs representing pro-Brexit districts support leaving the EU.
But a person familiar with Corbyn’s thinking said he had been looking for a policy the entire party could unite around. That suggests the union move may be one he can live with.
Corbyn needs a plan that can bring his divided party together. He has had a poor relationship with Labour MPs since he became leader in 2015. The following year they responded to the Brexit referendum result, which they blamed on his unenthusiastic campaigning for Remain, by trying to remove him.
Since that attempt failed, there has been a stalemate, in which Corbyn is backed by activists but resisted by MPs.
While a shift on Brexit will allay some of the internal party concerns over Corbyn’s leadership, there are many other areas where Labour MPs also have severe criticisms.
He has repeatedly been forced to deny that he’s anti-Semitic, and in May the U.K.’s Equality and Human Rights Commission announced it was investigating whether Labour had “discriminated against, harassed or victimized people because they are Jewish.”
And the party has initiated a process of forcing its MPs to say whether they want to be candidates at the next election, something that some fear is a prelude to pushing them out in favor of candidates whose political beliefs are closer to Corbyn’s.
There are signs that time could be running out for the Labour leader. In recent months, even those around Corbyn have expressed doubts about his leadership of the party.
Home affairs spokeswoman Diane Abbott, a long-time ally, said on Twitter that she was “beginning to worry” about Labour’s Brexit position. On Sunday, Labour’s Treasury spokesman John McDonnell, Corbyn’s closest ally in politics, did not deny that he had privately described the party’s Brexit policy as “a slow-moving car crash.”
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