Although Jeremy Corbyn used his Andrew Marr interview to try to smooth over and move on from internal party rows at Labour conference, his colleagues appear to have other ideas. This morning, Corbyn ally Len McCluskey used a media appearance to say that pro-Remain shadow cabinet ministers must either get on side and sing ‘from the same hymn sheet’ on Corbyn’s Brexit plans – or ‘step aside’. He singled out Emily Thornberry for criticism: ‘My message to them, to Emily and anyone else, is to support your leader.’
However, McCluskey is to be left disappointed. Thornberry used a fringe event this lunchtime to reiterate her view that Labour should campaign on an explicitly pro-Remain footing in an election. The shadow foreign secretary went against Corbyn’s preferred policy as of this morning – to agree how Labour should campaign in a second referendum not at this conference but at a future conference once a Corbyn government has renegotiated the Brexit deal. Speaking to Paul Waugh at a HuffPost event, Thornberry said she saw no reason why the matter couldn’t be decided this week: ‘I think that this conference should thrash it out.’
Thornberry went further on what the party’s Brexit position should be. She said the lesson from the European elections – in which both the Brexit party and the Liberal Democrats triumphed – is the need to be clear on Brexit. Thornberry said the ‘natural’ option for the Labour party is to campaign to Remain and suggested this should be so in any general election. In a general election in which Labour does not adopt a clear pro-Remain stance, Thornberry said she believed the party could lose 30 per cent of its Remain vote to Greens and Lib Dems ‘unless we are clear about where we stand on Europe’ – as she said polling shows these voters put Remain as their number one issue:
‘My concern, obviously, is that the next general election could be a Brexit election and just be about one issue. And we have to be very careful that it doesn’t come to that, but it does seem to me that one way in which we will be able to help ourselves is by having a clear line on Brexit, so that we can also talk about everything else, so that when Jeremy goes onto television he’s not constantly asked, what’s your policy on Brexit.’
Thornberry suggested that it wasn’t fair to describe her comments on the issue as disloyal as being pro-Remain ‘doesn’t mean that we are not socialists or that we are disloyal to Jeremy Corbyn’.
A reminder of the other side of the debate, however, came at the end of the session when Andy Abrahams, the Labour mayor of Mansfield, asked a question:
‘I got in by talking about Labour values, if I’d mentioned Brexit at any point, I had to divert away from that. So it’s back to that question. I think there’s a bit of a north/south divide on the Brexit issue.
In the northern towns like Mansfield they say they will never vote for Labour again because of the Brexit issue and I think the democratic position that they’ve been stating that each area should be able to look at those circumstances should be followed through and not say we have one position because it reflects the country is split and the only honest way is for everybody to put the best points forward and to represent their areas and then let people decide.’
Thornberry responded by talking about what Labour can offer to areas such as Mansfield – suggesting tribal Labour Leave voters would remain reluctant to vote Conservative. However, it is clear that if Thornberry and her allies get their way at this conference, it will cause difficulties for the party in a general election in areas that voted heavily to leave. A large part of the reason Corbyn’s inner circle remain keen to keep a degree of Brexit ambiguity is that they believe the only path to Labour winning a majority is by retaining and winning seats in the Midlands and the North. With Thornberry one of a number of senior Labour politicians – including Sadiq Khan and Scottish labour leader Richard Leonard – to today publicly urge Corbyn to take a pro-Remain position, the ambiguity is becoming harder for Team Corbyn to hold.