Britain’s main opposition party, Labour, opened its annual conference yesterday amid divisions over Brexit as deep as those in Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservatives.
“We’ll be setting out our plans to end the Brexit crisis, kickstart a Green Industrial Revolution, and put wealth and power in the hands of the many, not the few,” Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who is scheduled to give his keynote speech on Wednesday, tweeted from the conference.
Jennie Formby, the party’s general secretary, told hundreds of delegates at the opening session that a Labour government would take back health, transport and other services into public ownership.
Some 13,000 of Labour’s 500,000-plus members are expected to attend the five-day event in the southeastern coastal city of Brighton, where veteran left-winger Corbyn, 70, and his Brexit policy will come under intense scrutiny.
The party was hit by a row overnight after left-wingers tabled a motion to abolish the post of deputy leader, which is held by Tom Watson, a centrist who openly opposes Corbyn on Brexit and other issues (see report on the left).
“Tom Watson is the deputy leader of the party and I enjoy working with him,” Corbyn told reporters when asked about the row.
Formby urged the party to set aside divisions and “focus 100% on defeating” the Conservatives.
“We know a general election is coming and we’re ready for it,” Formby said, winning loud applause as she praised the “incredible leadership of Jeremy Corbyn and his team”.
The conference is expected to be dominated by debates over how, or even whether, Britain should leave the European Union and how the party should fight a snap election expected in the next three months.
The country is awaiting a crucial Supreme Court ruling on Johnson’s suspension of parliament, which critics say was intended to stifle debate over Brexit, amid growing fears that Britain will leave the EU without a negotiated settlement on October 31.
The motion to abolish the post of deputy leader was withdrawn after Corbyn intervened, but Watson told the BBC it had been “a straight sectarian attack on a broad-church party”.
He said he believed the motion was tabled by left-wing activists angered by his opposition to Corbyn’s Brexit position.
Corbyn has vowed to agree a new Brexit deal with the EU if he becomes prime minister, and then give voters a referendum to choose between that deal and remaining in the bloc.
He suggested that he would remain neutral in a referendum campaign.
However, Watson wants Labour to “unambiguously and unequivocally back remain”, and to prioritise a second Brexit referendum over an election.
Several pro-EU Labour campaign groups also plan to table a conference motion to force the party to “campaign energetically for a public vote and to Remain [in the EU]”.
Adding to the Labour leader’s woes, the party and Corbyn personally appear to be increasingly unpopular with voters.
Polls this week suggested Labour – traditionally one of the two main parties, along with the Conservatives – could slump to third place in an election, behind the resurgent, now totally anti-Brexit Liberal Democrats.
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