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Jeremy Corbyn, at Labour Party Conference, Faces Pressure on New Brexit Vote

LONDON — As the annual meeting of Britain’s opposition Labour Party began on Sunday, one big question was reverberating around the conference center in Liverpool: Should Britons be allowed to weigh in again on the country’s withdrawal from the European Union?

Since the country voted in a 2016 referendum to leave the 28-member bloc, a process known as Brexit, Labour has repeatedly said it would respect the outcome of that vote. But with the British government’s negotiations on the terms of its departure in turmoil, and the threat of an economically damaging exit rising, some trade union leaders and Labour representatives are warming to the idea of a second referendum on the issue.

Until now, the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has shown reluctance. But he is facing pressure on the issue, and it appears to be having an effect.

In an interview published on Sunday, Mr. Corbyn told The Sunday Mirror that while he was not calling for another referendum, he would “adhere” to any decision by party members, many of whom want a “people’s vote” on the terms of any exit deal — a plebiscite that would most likely give the option of staying inside the European bloc.

More than 140 motions on Brexit have been submitted for consideration at the conference this week, including one calling “for a public vote on the deal.” While it is unclear what might actually be put to a vote in Liverpool, the sheer number of motions is likely to exert pressure on the party leadership, nudging it in a more pro-European direction.

“To constitute the majority in Parliament that you would need to have a second referendum, the opposition party is pretty important,” said Paul Webb, a professor of politics at the University of Sussex in England. “So it could be a game-changer.”

Mr. Corbyn and his spokesman on economic issues, John McDonnell, would prefer for the growing crisis over Brexit to precipitate a general election that might bring them to power, rather than another referendum.

But the campaign for a “people’s vote” continues to gather traction, and the crisis deepened last week after the acrimonious summit in Salzburg, Austria, between Prime Minister Theresa May and her European counterparts.

Mrs. May declared the negotiations were at an “impasse” after the bloc’s leaders rejected the proposals she had made before the talks. The news prompted a fall in the value of the British currency, stoked political tensions and raised questions about Mrs. May’s ability to avoid a chaotic and economically damaging departure.

On the Labour side, “Jeremy Corbyn seems to be the strongest holdout against a second referendum,” said Mr. Webb, the politics professor.

At last year’s Labour conference, Momentum, a movement that supports Mr. Corbyn’s leadership and political agenda, helped to stifle a debate on Brexit. This year, its members want the topic discussed. A study on political party membership in Britain found that 78 percent of Labour members wanted a second referendum.

Joseph Todd, a spokesman for Momentum, said that many of the motions last year had come from people who “did not actually want to talk about Brexit; they wanted to hurt the party leadership.” This year, he argued, “there are a lot of activists who genuinely want to discuss the issue.”

Moreover, there is a question of urgency, especially in some of the country’s major trade unions, which are alarmed about the economic implications of Britain’s quitting the European Union without a deal. The Trades Union Congress said in a statement this month that, given the real risk of a collapse in talks, or of a deal that does not protect jobs, “we do not rule out the possibility of campaigning for people to have a final say on the Brexit deal through a popular vote.”

Still, Mr. Corbyn’s main objective is to force another election, he told the BBC on Sunday, and he has a long track record of euroskepticism. He was first elected to Parliament in 1983 on a pledge to quit what was then called the European Economic Community. In subsequent decades, he seemed to cling to a vision of the bloc as a bankers’ club whose rules limiting state aid to unprofitable companies could impede his leftist agenda.

Ahead of the 2016 Brexit referendum, Mr. Corbyn officially supported remaining in the European Union, but critics argued that he did the bare minimum to help the “Remain” campaign. He publicly accepted the results, but has allowed Labour policy to slowly evolve toward a “soft Brexit” that would retain close economic ties to the European Union to preserve jobs.

Though Labour’s divisions on Brexit are nowhere near as deep as those of the governing Conservative Party, they are nonetheless real. Some party members are vocally embracing “Lexit,” a leftist agenda for Brexit that might emphasize greater public ownership and a new strategy for the economy.

At the same time, Labour’s parliamentary group has been strained by feuding over the party’s stance on anti-Semitism, and there has been speculation that some on the right wing of the party might break away to form a centrist, pro-European party.

In a general election last year, Mr. Corbyn navigated such internal divisions by focusing his campaign not on Brexit but on social issues like health care, education and calls to reverse the politics of austerity. But avoiding the issue of Europe is getting harder as Brexit — scheduled for March 29 — draws closer and the impact on the economy and jobs gets ever more real.

“There is evidence of what is beginning to look like a significant shift against Brexit, and quite a lot of that has happened in those Labour-held constituencies that voted Leave but now are thought to have a Remain majority,” Mr. Webb said.

That could point to a cautious, gradual shift in Labour policy, whatever Mr. Corbyn’s instincts might say.

“I don’t underestimate his capacity to stick to his position,” Mr. Webb said, “but I think the pressure is growing.”

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page A9 of the New York edition with the headline: Labour May Call for a New Brexit Vote, But the Party’s Leader Is Less Than Sold. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

Source: NYT > World

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