UK Labour activists have backed a statement clarifying the party’s position on Brexit. The eleventh-hour statement was waved through by a show of hands in the main conference hall, after another day of division in the party over Britain’s EU withdrawal.
The statement drawn up by Labour’s National Executive Committee set out the party’s existing position. It came as the Labour leadership sought to calm the fury of pro-EU MPs who say they have been blocked from holding a meaningful vote on Brexit during the four-day conference in Brighton.
A vote by local parties and affiliated groups rejected the chance of a potentially awkward debate on issues like whether the UK should stay in the European single market after Brexit, instead choosing to debate topics such as growth and investment, housing and the NHS.
Shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer told the conference that Labour could keep the UK in a form of customs union with the EU and negotiate a new single market relationship after withdrawal.
Labor wants a deal that retains the benefits of the customs union and the single market and will not take any options off the table, he said.
But the NEC statement said only that Labour wants “a tariff and impediment-free relationship with the European Union” and that the precise institutional form of the new trading relationship “needs to be determined by negotiation”.
The statement repeated the leadership’s position that Labour “accepts and respects” the outcome of last year’s referendum. It confirmed that the party wants a “time-limited” transition period after the March 2019 date of Brexit during which Britain would remain in the single market and customs union, but did not spell out its preferred arrangements for the longer term.
Shadow Cabinet Office minister Jon Trickett said a vote on the party’s Brexit statement allowed delegates to show “maximum unity” by endorsing the policy. He told the conference: “I think it was only right and proper on such an important and crucial issue as Brexit that we debated it in full in conference this morning”
London mayor Sadiq Khan suggested the UK may end up not leaving the EU and said the capital would need a special deal on immigration if Brexit went ahead.
Shadow chancellor John McDonnell was forced to deny that the leadership was seeking to quash debate on Brexit, after delegates from local parties and unions chose eight other subjects as priorities for debate.