Labour has denied being forced to hastily rewrite a leaflet for next month’s European parliamentary elections, after a backlash from pro-remain MPs and MEPs.
The text of a campaign leaflet for the south-west of England sparked fury among supporters of a second referendum, who insist Labour’s backing for the idea in recent House of Commons votes means it is now official party policy.
The shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, was among those angered by the wording of the draft.
It promised: “Labour will bring our country together,” and urged voters to use the European elections as an opportunity to “tell the Tories you are fed up with their divisive and incompetent government”, but did not mention a referendum.
Hilary Benn tweeted: “Labour has twice supported a confirmatory referendum in votes in the House of Commons. It’s our policy. Why isn’t it mentioned in this leaflet?”
Remain supporters claimed on Friday that the leaflet was being redrafted, before a crunch meeting of the party’s ruling national executive committee (NEC) on Tuesday to decide Labour’s manifesto for the poll on 23 May.
But a Labour spokesperson insisted: “There are a number of different texts for different leaflets in circulation, including for a freepost and for other campaign purposes. They all reflect existing party policy. Our manifesto for the European elections will be decided next Tuesday.”
Opinion ahead of the meeting appeared to be finely balanced. Some NEC members, including the deputy leader, Tom Watson, want to see a policy platform that includes a clear commitment to a second referendum; while others, including the MP Jon Trickett, prefer the party to seek to represent leavers as well as remainers.
The view of the Momentum founder Jon Lansman is expected to be critical. Momentum was created to support Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, but many of its members and senior figures are enthusiastic supporters of a second referendum.
Laura Parker, Momentum’s national coordinator, spoke at the Put it to the People rally last month, and missed out on being among the party’s top candidates for the European parliamentary elections, after a row.
Some MPs in Eurosceptic seats have asked the party’s leadership to hold off from announcing any policy shift until after next week’s local elections, fearing that a full-throated commitment to a referendum would further infuriate their constituents.
The Stoke MP Gareth Snell said, “Labour’s policy – as agreed at conference – was to work for a better deal and respect the referendum result. Committing our MEPs to a divisive second referendum which is solely the preserve of Westminster and not something they have any control over does nothing to help win votes in the regions of England.”
But 75 MPs and 14 sitting MEPs have signed a letter to Jeremy Corbyn, urging him to promise a referendum, coordinated by the campaign group Love Socialism, Hate Brexit.
“We need a message of hope and solidarity, and we need to campaign for it without caveats. To motivate our supporters, and to do the right thing by our members and our policy, a clear commitment to a confirmatory public vote on any Brexit deal must be part of our European election manifesto,” the letter says.
“We understand the many different pressures and views within our movement, but without this clear commitment, we fear that our electoral coalition could fall apart.”
Signatories include Clive Lewis, the shadow Treasury minister, and Benn, who is chair of the Brexit select committee.
The leader of Labour’s MEPs said he expected the NEC to back a referendum on a Brexit deal in the manifesto for the European elections.
Richard Corbett said: “We have got to the point now where not holding another referendum is tantamount to saying to the general public: ‘You had your say three years ago, now you have to shut up and let the politicians serve up whatever they want to and you can’t have a say on it.’
“I expect the NEC to continue with what is Labour party policy, which is to say that there should be a confirmatory public vote on any Brexit deal that this government comes up with.”
All the main parties are cranking up their campaign machines for the European elections, which the government had hoped to avoid by striking a cross-party Brexit deal.
Negotiations between Labour and the government do not appear to be making significant progress – although both sides continue to insist they are “serious”.
Talks in recent days have focused on workers’ rights, and on “entrenchment” – locking in any concessions made by the government, so that they cannot be unpicked by Theresa May’s successor.