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Will the union force Labour’s hand on Brexit?

PUBLISHED: 15:05 19 January 2018

Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn enjoys the backing of Unite's Len McCluskey - but could Brexit prove a stumbling block?

Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn enjoys the backing of Unite's Len McCluskey - but could Brexit prove a stumbling block?

PA Archive/PA Images

Labour continues with its muddled message on Brexit.

Every time one of the front bench is interviewed we get a different take on what the party’s thinking is.

The reason for this is leader Jeremy Corbyn. Let’s be clear: he is not a fan of the European Union.

Mr Corbyn has a long-held Euroscepticism that is not uncommon on the left of the party. Strangely it seems that all those young voters who have rushed to the party and regard “oh Jeremy Corbyn” as a saviour have not figured this out. Overwhelmingly they wanted the UK to remain in the EU.

Shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer – not a left wing, Corbynista – is doing his best. But increasingly it seems he is shackled by his leader and shadow chancellor John McDonnell.

When Sir Keir is asked “would you back a second referendum?” his stock reply is “we want to keep all our options on the table”. Sounds reasonable. But when his boss is asked the same he rules it out. What is the agreed line? Clearly there isn’t one.

A senior Labour source put it like this “Jeremy is not consumed by Brexit... He thinks there are far more important issues facing the UK”. Fair enough – Mr Corbyn is a conviction politician and his convictions on issues don’t tend to change.

So why then did he half-heartedly campaign to remain in the EU in the run up to the vote? Was it because one of Labour’s biggest financial backers, the union Unite, has rather more robust views on Europe?

Unite leader Len McCluskey backs Mr Corbyn. He is delighted that the party has ducked to the left after years in the centre ground. But there may be a Brexit battle ground ahead.

On June 20, 2016, the horrific murder of Jo Cox took place in West Yorkshire. That was the day Mr McCluskey was set to give his Brexit key note but, quite rightly, campaigning was halted. He never delivered that speech.

But here is an extract: “My final appeal is on the basis of hope. The hope that rests on – Our internationalism. Our commitment to democracy and social justice. Our belief that the only race is the human race. That ours is one world. That the working class should unite across borders.

“That the EU as it stands is not the EU that it can and will be if we work together. That if we vote to remain we defeat the reactionary right. And open the way for a Britain of justice, of trade unionism renewed in a Europe focussed on a better future for working people everywhere.

“A Europe in which we can say – yes, the elite has failed. But we will not let their failure drive us apart. A Europe of working people united for jobs, justice and peace.”

Stirring stuff. And certainly not the sort of message you would ever have heard Mr Corbyn delivering.

And here comes the crunch. Unite remain hugely concerned about the impact of Brexit on its members. There are worries about potential job losses and any moves to water down workers’ rights. One Unite member said: “A lot of people I work with and who are also in the union were split on Brexit. They wanted to give the establishment a bit of a black eye.

“But the union was talking sense. The country would have been better staying in the EU. I am very worried that the Tories will seek to deregulate and it will be the workers who suffer.

“I like Corbyn. I voted for him and I will again. But I think he needs to step up a bit on Brexit. It feels like Labour is a good opposition on austerity but not Brexit. I hope the union has a quiet word.”

Mr McCluskey has a choice to make. Sit it out and fall in to line with Mr Corbyn or quietly take him to one side.

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