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article imageLabour papers over Brexit splits with fighting talk

By Martine PAUWELS (AFP)     Sep 25, 2017 in Politics

Britain's main opposition Labour party is performing a delicate balancing act on Brexit even as it takes on Prime Minister Theresa May's negotiating strategy.

Brexit spokesman Keir Starmer told Labour's annual conference in Brighton on Monday that the party was ready to "take charge" of negotiations with Brussels if May's government collapsed due to its own splits.

After months of bickering within the cabinet, Starmer said: "Labour are now the grown-ups in the room".

But the party led by veteran socialist Jeremy Corbyn, whose better-than-expected performance in a June election deprived May of her parliamentary majority, is locked in its own battle over Britain's future.

"It is a genuinely tricky prospect for the party. Understandably, Corbyn does not want to make a decision one way or the other," said Steven Fielding, a political history professor at Nottingham University.

The party's electorate comprises people who voted for and against Britain's European Union membership in last year's referendum, with many younger members favouring the EU but older ones set against it.

The party has sought unity through attacking the Conservative government's approach to Brexit.

Starmer accused the government of a "dogmatic disregard of the national interest" and "post-imperial delusions", as he put forward what he said was Labour's own "pragmatic approach".

He said that in her speech last week, May had copied his own policy set out last month of retaining access to the European single market during a transition period after Britain leaves the EU in March 2019.

But he was far less clear on what type of long-term relationship Labour would like Britain to have with the European Union, an issue that divided the party on the first day of the conference on Sunday.

- 'Deeply unfortunate' -

Delegates opted not to vote on a call by some Labour members for Britain to remain in the single market, thus avoiding an open split.

The party leadership instead put out a watered-down statement calling for a Brexit deal "that prioritises jobs and the economy and protects rights".

"The precise institutional form of the new trading and customs relationship needs to be determined by negotiation," the statement said.

Labour MP Chuka Umunna, a leading supporter of the pro-EU Open Britain campaign, said it was "deeply unfortunate" that the party would not hold a proper debate on its Brexit policy.

"It is now even more vital that as we go forward we put clear red water between the Labour party and the government on Brexit," he said.

"For me and many others, that means committing to full and permanent membership of the single market and customs union. We will continue to make this argument."

- Conservatives 'much more divided' -

Starmer said Labour wanted Britain to retain strong trade ties with the EU and would not rule out calling for continued membership in a customs union.

"Subject of course to negotiations, remaining in a form of customs union with the EU is a possible end destination for Labour," he told delegates.

"We are also flexible as to whether the benefits of the single market are best retained by negotiating a new single market relationship, or by working up from a bespoke trade deal," he said.

Responding to his speech, the Conservative party said it showed that "Labour have no plan for Brexit".

The decision not to hold a vote "shows just how divided they are", a spokesman said.

But Paul Whiteley, a professor of government at the University of Essex, said the Conservatives were "much more divided" than Labour on Brexit.

He said Corbyn faced the challenge of "straddling" the divide between a youthful influx of new members who tended to favour staying in the EU and older working-class members who were for Brexit.

"I think he's doing it very effectively," he said.

"At some point he's going to have to come off the fence but now is not the time" as the party is mobilising for a possible new general election.

Fielding added: "If Labour want to win the next election, it has to appeal to those who voted Leave to a much greater extent than at the last election, while retaining hold of Remain voters".

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