Split by Brexit, Labour kicks off conference showdown
Britain's main opposition Labour Party will begin the daunting task of forming a coherent Brexit plan at its annual conference on Sunday, with polls suggesting it could face an election drubbing.
Yet the same divisions over Europe that saw Boris Johnson's right-wing Conservatives lose their working majority -- and make a general election appear inevitable -- are also tearing apart Labour on the left.
The 119-year-old party's support base consists of cosmopolitan city-dwelling europhiles and traditional working-class communities that rejected Brussels in the 2016 referendum.
Polls show these views have become even more entrenched today -- a polarisation that further complicates Corbyn's bid to find a unifying stance.
The strongly anti-European Brexit Party and the pro-EU Liberal Democrats are eroding Labour's support on both flanks, and it now sits 15 percent behind the Conservatives, according to a poll published late Saturday.
Labour officials will hunker down in a swanky hotel on England's south coast Sunday night to whittle down their Brexit options to a single position that will be either rejected or approved Monday.
Corbyn has given every indication that he wants Labour to stay neutral on the defining issue of UK politics.
"No, I am not sitting on the fence," he insisted in a testy ITV interview Friday.
He has promised to negotiate a new divorce deal that maintains closer EU relations and then hold another referendum in which remaining in the bloc is the other option.
But he would not say which of the two he would campaign for -- or whether he actually wants to stay or go.
"The British people will make that final decision," Corbyn told ITV.
Efforts to keep the peace by appeasing both wings of his party are not sitting well with voters ahead of an early election that most expect to happen within months.
A September YouGov survey showed that just half of self-identifying Labour supporters trust Corbyn's ability to "make the right decisions on Brexit".
And an Ipsos MORI analysis found Corbyn's net satisfaction rating at -60. No opposition leader has fared worse in more than 40 years.
"This strategy of being all things to all people on Brexit -- it paid off partly in 2017 (elections), but it's not clear that it's going to pay off again," said London School of Economics analyst Sara Hobolt.
"I think it wouldn't be right for Labour to have no opinion on such a big decision," Labour's foreign affairs spokeswoman Emily Thornberry agreed.
"Labour should campaign for remain," she told The Guardian.
The push for Labour to reject Brexit is being resisted by a eurosceptic core of socialist Corbyn supporters who include his closest aides.
The rise of the veteran leftist followed a 2015 change in Labour leadership election rules that gave equal weight to the votes of both rank-and-file members and MPs.
Corbyn's left-wing views resonated with new members and young people disillusioned by the New Labour approach of Tony Blair's more centrist government.
A group called Momentum that helped Corbyn become leader that year unsuccessfully tried Saturday to abolish the post of the party's pro-European deputy leader Tom Watson.
"I knew there was discussions going on about the role of deputy leader, I did not know that that particular motion was going to be put forward," Corbyn admitted on the BBC's Andrew Marr Show.
"There was a move that didn't happen, that didn't work and I intervened," he added.
But Momentum boss Jon Lansman said it was time to instill party discipline and for everyone to adopt Corbyn's neutrality on Europe.
"We need to make sure the deputy leader role is properly accountable to the membership," he said.
Corbyn has sought to move past Brexit and campaign on a more traditionally Labour agenda of workers' rights and clean climate policies.
Some of the proposals that could come up for a vote at the conference include a plan to give 10 percent of UK companies' shares to workers over the next 10 years.
The Financial Times called this "one of the biggest state expropriations of assets seen in a western democracy".
Momentum also wants Labour to commit to a net zero carbon emissions target by 2030 and to "abolish private schools" in a "radical and transformational" election platform.
The various motions will be put for a vote before Corbyn concludes the conference with a keynote address Wednesday.
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