Jeremy Corbyn has avoided a damaging row over Brexit after a last-minute move by left-wing supporters kept a vote on the issue off the Labour conference agenda.
“Contemporary” motions on the UK quitting the EU lost out in the party’s “priorities” ballot of party members and trade union affiliates on Sunday.
Instead, conference will discuss and vote on on eight other issues: housing, social care, the NHS, rail services, workers’ rights, investment and growth, public sector pay and the Grenfell Tower disaster.
Brexit motions won just 72,000 votes among local parties, way behind the other issues and not enough to get onto the agenda.
Labour conference will debate Brexit on Monday but without a vote on any controversial motions.
The move was greeted by a swift backlash from MPs, MEPs, and activists and was ridiculed by Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.
HuffPost UK understands that a specially prepared statement is set to be issued by the party’s ruling National Executive Committee (NEC) to avoid further disunity.
Following late-night discussions, a vote is expected to be allowed on the NEC statement on Monday, although it is unlikely to include any controversial commitments or change party policy, as demanded by many local members.
More than 80% of party members are former ‘Remain’ supporters, but Corbyn himself is keen not to upset Leave voters. Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell has urged the nation to ‘embrace’ the opportunities Brexit holds for ending privatised services.
In what appeared to be a bid to spare the Labour leader’s blushes, grassroots movement Momentum had earlier asked its members not to include Brexit in a list of motions at the gathering in Brighton.
The plea, made in an email first revealed by HuffPost UK, underlines the power that Momentum now wields to decide crunch votes at the conference.
Pro-EU Labour members swiftly accused the group of a ‘fix’ that ran counter to Corbyn’s own demands to allow the rank and file to determine the party’s direction.
Corbyn supporters insist that he and the party were right to avoid a damaging internal row at its conference, just as the Tories are at their most divided.
The row over Brexit had been set to dominate the conference, with left-wing unions like the TSSA uniting with ‘Blairite’ moderates and some Momentum members to demand a more pro-EU policy.
A group of Labour MPs on Sunday published a letter urging Corbyn to commit to permanent membership of the single market and customs union - and take advantage of Theresa May’s decision to delay ‘real Brexit’ until 2021.
Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said the decision not to vote on Brexit was ‘an abdication of responsibility’.
An abdication of responsibility... https://t.co/5BXpM0jMXE— Nicola Sturgeon (@NicolaSturgeon) September 24, 2017
Labour MP Heidi Alexander agreed.
Local Labour parties and members across the country had backed motions to change party policy to commit to continuing EU migration by ‘maintaining and extending’ the principle of ‘freedom of movement’.
But after the ‘priorities ballot’ on Sunday - which decided which motions are picked for votes - Brexit was kept off the agenda.
The issue is still due to be debated on Monday, but without a vote the debate will have no bite, backers of the motions claim.
A pro-EU rally took place outside the Brighton conference hall on Sunday, with ‘exit from Brexit’ the rallying cry of protestors.
Richard Angell, director of the centrist pressure group Progress, told HuffPost UK: ’The first conference where Momentum have got a majority, they decide to use this stitch and fix to save Jeremy Corbyn’s blushes.
“The leadership of the past might have occasionally stitched things up but not normally within seconds of taking control.
“This would make the control freaks of the New Labour era blush.”
Reaction on Twitter from some anti-Brexit campaigners was swift.
Apparently, a Labour democracy involves not talking about topics the dear leader finds difficult & not listening to people you disagree with https://t.co/nCtRdFQzOz— Dr. Steve Cooke (@SteveCooke) September 24, 2017
Absolutely unbelievable fiddling to save Jeremy's blushes. https://t.co/xxEiod4Wsp— Julie Owen Moylan (@JulieOwenMoylan) September 24, 2017
Not even New Labour at the height of its power managed members so supremely. https://t.co/fkgtchJdZy— Theo Bertram (@theobertram) September 24, 2017
In an email to supporters, seen by HuffPost UK, Momentum’s leadership had set out overnight the four topics it wanted to vote on - and none of them included the EU.
“Momentum recommends voting for the following four subjects as they are crucial issues that the public care about, and it is vital Labour sets out a genuinely progressive vision on them in order to win the next election: Housing Social Care The NHS Rail,” it said.
A Momentum spokesman added: “Housing, the NHS, social care and our railways are crucially important issues for the country...we know Labour members care a lot about these issues, which is why we’re prioritising them.”
Tory MP Suella Fernandez said: “Labour are ducking away from debating Brexit, the biggest issue facing our country, because they are too divided on the issue and have no plan.”
A spokesman for the recently created Labour Campaign for Free Movement told HuffPost UK: “In just over a month, thousands of party members have signed up to the campaign, and there has been a groundswell of support for defending and extending free movement. There’s a real feeling that we’re turning the tide.
“We will come back next year. Migration is a difficult debate - but sooner rather than later, the Labour movement has to be able to trust in the collective wisdom of its grassroots.”