Jeremy Corbyn faced a backlash from some of his most loyal allies after he once again postponed moves to toughen up Labour’s policy on a second Brexit referendum.
At a heated meeting of the shadow cabinet, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott warned that the current lack of clarity was causing severe damage to morale among party members and voters who supported Corbyn.
In his strongest words yet, McDonnell told shadow colleagues the party’s position on Brexit was like “a slow-moving car crash”.
The Labour leader sparked the row after he revealed that further consultation with trade union bosses was needed before any final decision could be made.
Unite, one of the party’s biggest donors, yesterday made clear to Corbyn it would not back a second referendum on ‘any’ Brexit deal and vigorously opposed Labour becoming ‘the party of Remain’.
HuffPost UK understands that the next ‘Contact Group’ between Corbyn and general secretaries of Unite, Unison, Usdaw, Aslef, CWU, TSSA and Bakers’ unions is not expected to take place until mid-July.
Party sources confirmed that no decision was taken at the shadow cabinet, despite McDonnell having said he had expected “white smoke”, a reference to when the Vatican finally chooses a Pope.
Labour frontbenchers are determined to change the policy after the party haemorrhaged votes in the European Parliament elections earlier this month, coming third behind the Liberal Democrats.
Some recent opinion polls suggest Labour is still behind the Lib Dems.
But Corbyn’s decision to delay the policy shift by possibly another four weeks prompted some vociferous contributions during a 90-minute Brexit discussion.
Shadow ministers pushed hard for the party to switch to a ‘referendum-and-Remain’ stance, before the annual conference forced the policy on the leadership this September.
McDonnell, who said he had been led to believe a final “white smoke” decision would be made on Tuesday, said that if the party didn’t act “really soon” the impact could be irreversible.
Speaking later to a car manufacturing conference in London, the shadow chancellor said Corbyn was “a consensus builder” and claimed a decision could even be reached over the next week.
Asked if Corbyn would be campaigning for Remain, McDonnell replied: “Well, I’m arguing the case.”
Abbott stressed that the discontent among the mass of party members was now widespread, while Emily Thornberry said “we need a decision today - this is about leadership”.
Keir Starmer, who has worked with Corbyn on an incremental approach to shifts in position in recent months, told the meeting: “We can’t have half a policy.”
Starmer stressed that backing a referendum would instantly prompt the next question of which side the party would take in that referendum - and it had to clearly campaign for ‘Remain’.
Deputy leader Tom Watson warned: “The longer we leave this, the worse it will get.”
But Corbyn insisted that unions were a key part of the Labour movement and needed more time. A group of general secretaries is due to meet face-to-face in the next fortnight, partly at the request of Unite and others.
A full meeting of the ruling National Executive Committee (NEC) will also take place next month, as Corbyn works to find a unified position across all parts of the party. “We just want breathing space,” one insider said.
Corbyn’s move to delay a decision was backed up by party chair Ian Lavery and shadow cabinet office minister Jon Trickett.
Both shadow business secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey and shadow education secretary Angela Rayner said that the party had to take the unions with them, adding there was a real risk of losing the party’s Leave voters in the north and midlands.
In the wake of the Euro elections third place, Corbyn himself tried to reassure angry party members by declaring that he wanted a public vote on ‘any’ Brexit deal passed by parliament.
Some party insiders said that although Corbyn had reacted quickly after the Euro election disaster, he knew that he would have to get the agreement of key unions and shadow ministers to bring them to accept a second referendum.
“People are in very different positions so it’s just taking time to bring people along,” one source said.
But another person close to the talks said it was clear that Unite’s Len McCluskey wanted to “slam on the brakes” on the policy. “The shadow cabinet is more united than it has been in three years on this, but Unite are the problem.”
Every week, local Labour parties are passing motions demanding a new referendum, ahead of the party’s annual conference this year.
Labour MP Phil Wilson, who has led attempts in parliament to get a new referendum, was scathing about the delay.
“This is the biggest decision facing our country for a generation and Labour voters, Labour members and Labour MP’s expect our party to have a clear policy that reflects our values.
“Instead, we have to listen to muddle, confusion and the sound of the can being kicked listlessly down a never-ending road.”
HuffPost UK understands that Corbyn’s stance stemmed from the failure of a crunch meeting of trade unions on Monday to come up with agreement.
Even the GMB union, which has pushed hard for a ‘confirmatory ballot’ of the public, is not ready to campaign for Remain in a referendum, one source said.
Unite general secretary Len McCluskey was not present for the meeting but his assistant general secretary, Howard Beckett, set out that the union would only back a second referendum on Labour’s ‘jobs-first’ Brexit proposal, sources said.
At workplaces around the country, Unite members are increasingly polarised between those Brexiteers who want a no-deal outcome and those who want to revoke Article 50.
In the meeting hosted at Unison’s HQ, the unions did agree that they would campaign against a no-deal Brexit, and promote an anti-racist agenda to combat Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party.
The only referendum they committed to collectively was a ‘confirmatory ballot’ on Labour’s own Brexit plan.
They agreed their general secretaries would meet again with a further meeting with Corbyn possibly “at the end of July”, one source said. Others suggested Corbyn and Starmer could meet union chiefs in a fortnight’s time.
Unison general secretary Dave Prentis made clear that he wants a decision to be taken quickly and that his union wants a public vote on May’s deal or no-deal.
With Boris Johnson increasingly likely to opt for no-deal, Unison has come to the view that going back to the public is the best stance for Labour to adopt.
The union, which is now Britain’s largest, has in the past advocated a ‘Norway-plus’ style Brexit but accepts such a plan is now unlikely ever to get through parliament.
One union source claimed that McCluskey had rung round fellow union leaders ahead of the Monday meeting, claiming that Corbyn himself was not comfortable with a shift to a second referendum.
Labour MP Neil Coyle told PoliticsHome: “Members are desperate to see the Labour party move, but the leadership seems totally dependent on one trade union leader giving his permission to change party policy. That’s an unacceptable situation.”
Ahead of any general election, a key factor for Corbyn is the way the SNP is exploiting the lack of clarity to hammer Labour north of the border.
Scottish Labour MP Martin Whitfield added: “It’s disappointing that the Shadow Cabinet has not reached an official position on supporting a final say on Brexit, but I remain confident this is just a matter of time.
“The UK Labour Party should follow Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard’s lead and swiftly move to become a party of Remain.”