Jeremy Corbyn has come under fresh pressure over his Brexit stance after one of Labour’s key trade union backers paved the way to backing a referendum on the UK’s final divorce deal.
Members of Unite, the UK’s largest trade union, have voted to agree a policy stating it is “open” to a public vote on the agreement the government strikes with Brussels.
At their policy conference in Brighton, Unite members also agreed it is “highly unlikely” the final Brexit deal will satisfy the union’s criteria and Labour’s six tests for an agreement.
Such a moment would see Unite “mobilise” against the Brexit deal with their “priority” to force an early general election and the election of a Labour government, said a statement proposed by the union’s leadership and “overwhelmingly endorsed” by members.
Yet, paving the way for Unite support for a second Brexit referendum, the statement added: “We are also open to the possibility of a popular vote being held on any deal, depending on political circumstances.”
Campaigners for a second Brexit referendum on the final divorce deal hailed Unite members’ decision as a “significant victory” that “underlines the shift in opinion across the wider labour movement”.
A spokesperson for the People’s Vote campaign added: “The three biggest unions – Unite, GMB and Unison – are now unequivocally opposed to the government’s drive towards a ‘hard’ Brexit, and Unite, as the biggest affiliate to Labour, have left door open to the option of supporting a people’s vote.
“The direction of travel is clear, but time is short. It will be essential for the Labour movement to mobilise quickly if the government attempts to force their bad deal or even a ‘no deal’ Brexit on the country.
“Support for a people’s vote is the way to build a mass movement to oppose such a catastrophic outcome for working people.”
Earlier, Unite general secretary Len McCluskey told the Brighton conference that “Brexit is turning into a nightmare” as he attacked uncertainty over the government’s plans for leaving the EU.
Mr McCluskey, a key ally of Mr Corbyn, previously said he was “conscious” the Labour leader “has not ruled out the option” of supporting a referendum on the final Brexit deal.
Asked at the weekend if he would rule out Labour support for a second referendum on Brexit, Mr Corbyn told Sky News’ Sophy Ridge on Sunday show: “We’ve not proposed it, we’ve not supported it and we’re not proposing it now.”
“We’re not supporting a second referendum.”
The Labour leader is having to navigate a careful line between his overwhelmingly pro-Remain MPs but also large numbers of Leave supporters among the party’s traditional electoral base.
In his own speech to the Unite conference on Tuesday, Mr Corbyn claimed that “Labour is back as the political voice of the working class” as he committed the party to doing “far more to give a real voice to working class communities who feel they aren’t heard in politics”.
Meanwhile, Mr Corbyn is also facing new scrutiny over Labour’s commitment to dealing with allegations of anti-Semitism.
The election of Claudia Webbe as chair of the party’s disputes panel to oversee disciplinary cases has been branded “disgraceful”.
Ms Webbe has previously faced criticism for defending former London mayor Ken Livingstone, when he was briefly suspended from office for likening a Jewish reporter to a Nazi concentration camp guard in 2006.
She is also reported to have spoken at events alongside Labour activist Marc Wadsworth, who was expelled from the party following a clash with a Jewish MP; and Jackie Walker, also suspended for Labour and who caused an outrage for claiming Jewish people were “financiers of the sugar and slave trade”.
Euan Philips, spokesperson for Labour Against Anti-Semitism, said: “Jeremy Corbyn has repeatedly promised that he is committed to tackling anti-Semitism in his party, but his words ring hollow with this appointment.
“He is failing to deal with this situation and is now further away from winning over the trust of the Jewish community than he has ever been – but the reality is that without their support there will be no Labour government.”