Jeremy Corbyn’s policy on Brexit has triumphed at Labour conference, as members endorsed his stance to stay neutral while negotiating a new deal.
The party voted against a motion which would have seen Labour backing Remain in any future referendum.
But there was confusion as the votes were called, as the chair of the proceedings faced calls for a recount.
Labour’s position on Brexit has dominated the conference agenda, with huge disagreements over the issue.
The party’s draft plan for its Brexit policy, put forward by Mr Corbyn, suggests that, if Labour wins power in a general election, it would remain neutral while negotiating a new deal with the EU within three months.
It would then hold a referendum within six months, and the party would decide which side to back ahead of that at a special conference.
Grassroots activists at the conference have been pushing for an unambiguous stance, tabling a motion calling for Labour to campaign “energetically” to remain.
But this motion was rejected in a show of hands while a motion setting out the leadership’s official position and another endorsing its handling of Brexit were overwhelmingly passed.
After the results were announced by trade union official Wendy Nichols, there were charged scenes in the conference hall.
Several delegates called for the votes to be counted individually, suggesting the outcome of the remain motion was much closer than officials had suggested.
One delegate said there had to be an official card vote as “this is one of the most important decisions Labour is going to take in the next decade”.
The result is a major boost for Jeremy Corbyn, who was backed by the majority of Labour’s 12 affiliated unions, including Unite and the GMB.
Unison had broken ranks with other unions to back the Remain motion.
Backing the remain motion, Simon Hannah warned the leadership not to “kick the can down the road again” by delaying a decision until after a general election.
“We cannot win an election by not taking sides,” he said. “We need to say it now loud and clear we are a remain party.”
But others argued for a separate motion urging the leadership to adopt a neutral position, with one delegate Noah Tucker saying Labour could not negotiate a Brexit deal if it had already committed itself to remain.
“Don’t let Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage wear the clothes of the 52%,” he said.
Addressing the conference, shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer said a referendum was the only way to to “break the deadlock”.
While he would personally back remain, he said the status quo was not acceptable and there needed to be fundamental reform to the UK’s membership.
“We owe it to those who want to leave to secure that leave deal and put it to them in a referendum,” he said.
“If you want a referendum, vote Labour, if you want a final say on Brexit, vote Labour, if you want to fight for remain, vote Labour.”
But the leader of the Unite union, Len McCluskey, said Labour must avoid dividing on Brexit lines and follow the Tories and Lib Dems in “writing off half of the nation”.
By keeping both Remain and Leave voters onside, he said Jeremy Corbyn would be able “to walk through the door of Downing Street” in the coming months.
“Jeremy Corbyn is a thousand times right in trying to speak up for the whole of the country at this time of crisis,” he said. “Please give Jeremy Corbyn the support he needs.”
Labour MPs are also divided over the issue.
Shadow Treasury minister Annaliese Dodds said the economic consequences of Brexit were “so severe” that she believed Labour must back remain in another referendum.
“Is it going to be easy?” she told the BBC’s Carolyn Quinn. “No it is not, because people are passionate in both directions.”
‘Treated with ridicule’
But Stephen Kinnock, the MP for Aberavon, told a fringe meeting organised by the Social Market Foundation that Labour had had “more Brexit positions than the Karma Sutra”.
Describing the first two days of conference as an “utter shambles”, he said Labour should have stuck with its 2017 manifesto pledge to honour the referendum result and moving away from this this would not go down well in Leave constituencies.
“Our position on Brexit is being treated with ridicule on the doorsteps in my constituency,” he said.
“We could end up passing three contradictory motions and then it would be up to those writing the manifesto to decide. Good luck with that.”
Away from Brexit, Labour has announced a pledge to introduce free personal care in England for over-65s, so they will not have to pay for help with dressing, washing and meals.
In his speech, Mr McDonnell also pledged to end in-work poverty within five years and to move to a four day, or 32-hour, working week within a decade without any cut to pay.
These are the latest of several new policies likely to feature in the party’s next election manifesto, including pledges to:
- Scrap Ofsted, which it called “unfit for purpose”, and replace it with a new schools inspections system
- Make NHS prescriptions free in England, bringing it in line with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland
- Force large employers to provide flexible working hours to women experiencing symptoms of the menopause