Instead, the party will follow Corbyn’s cautious plan to try to win the next general election and only then decide — by a special party conference — whether it will campaign to remain in or leave the E.U. in a new referendum.
This could be awkward. Corbyn has promised that his government would try to strike a withdrawal deal with other E.U. leaders, but he would go into negotiations with the caveat that Labour might decide to campaign against that deal in a people’s vote.
It also means that Corbyn, a 70-year-old socialist and longtime Euroskeptic who ultimately voted “remain” in the 2016 referendum, will continue to struggle with his own mind and his inner circle.
Labour has held together in fierce opposition to the maneuverings of Prime Minister Boris Johnson. But three days of debate in blustery, seaside Brighton have made clear that the party is riven by divisions over Brexit and Corbyn.
Even as Labour heavies laid out ambitious, self-described “radical” proposals — for a 32-hour workweek; for shutting down elite private colleges like Eton; for putting workers on corporate boards; for nationalizing railroads again; for banning private automobiles and saving the planet — Brexit continued to dominate the conversation.
“It would be a car crash to send Jeremy Corbyn into a general election saying that he could negotiate a credible deal when our position is one to reject that deal,” Howard Beckett, a leader of the Unite trade union, argued on the floor of the conference.
Corbyn’s wobbling on Brexit has frustrated pro-Europe, moderate Labour leaders and their supporters. They warn that such a fuzzy stance will hurt the party in upcoming elections — elections that likely to take place before the end of the year, as Johnson’s government is teetering, and his majority in Parliament has slipped away.
“If this fudge is the Labour policy at the next general election, we will drive ‘remain’ voters away,” Andrew Lewin, the founder of the group Remain Labour, told the BBC.
Recent polling shows Labour competitive with Johnson’s Conservative Party but losing center-left support to the surging Liberal Democrats, who soundly reject Brexit.
Many Labour supporters believe the party should be in a far stronger position, given that the Conservative Party has failed to deliver Brexit — or much else in the past three years.
On Sunday, Corbyn told a BBC current affairs show that a Brexit deal negotiated by a Labour government could be much better than remaining in the E.U.
“We have consistently put forward what I believe to be a credible option,” Corbyn said, describing a very soft Brexit that would see Britain stay closely aligned with European rules and regulations, and remain in the customs union and single market.
Corbyn said that “would be a credible offer to put before the British people.”
But in the debate before Monday’s vote, a local Labour member from Leeds, Hannah Patterson, warned the hall that the party “needs a clear stance.” It is not good enough to wait until after the election before deciding to back remain, she said.
Richard Corbett, a Labour Party lawmaker in the European Parliament, told delegates that Corbyn’s policy of Brexit ambiguity hasn’t worked. The strategy saw Labour stumble in recent European elections, hemorrhaging votes to the Green and Liberal Democrat parties, he said.
Top Labour leaders, such as Emily Thornberry and Tom Watson, have both called for the party to oppose Brexit in a fresh referendum.
But many spoke to back Corbyn’s flexible position, saying it would be wrong for Labour to unilaterally declare itself against Brexit when many Labour supporters voted to leave in the June 2016 referendum.
Corbyn’s second-in-command, John McDonnell, said he would campaign for a remain vote in the promised referendum. But he said Corbyn’s wait-and-see approach made sense. “There isn’t any war in the Labour Party” over Brexit, McDonnell said, just a democratic difference of opinion.