Split by Brexit, Labour kicks off conference showdown

Protesters hold placards and wave EU and Union flags as they gather for a march and rally organised by "The People's Vote" in Brighton, on the south coast of England on Saturday, to call for politicians to give the public a final say referendum on Brexit. -AFP

Brighton, UniBRIGHTON, UNITED KINGDOM - Britain's main opposition Labour Party begins its annual conference on Sunday desperately searching for a coherent Brexit plan to stem a potential drubbing in a looming election.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn's moment of truth comes with the crisis-torn country hurtling toward an October 31 exit from the European Union without a plan for future trade.

Yet the same divisions over Europe that saw Boris Johnson's right-wing Conservatives lose their working majority are also tearing apart Labour on the left.

The 119-year-old party's support base consists of cosmopolitan city-dwelling europhiles and traditional working-class communities that rejected Brussels in the 2016 referendum.

Polls show these views have become even more entrenched today -- a polarization that further complicates Corbyn's bid to find a unifying stance.

The strongly anti-European Brexit Party and the pro-EU Liberal Democrats are eroding Labour's support on both flanks, according to recent polls.

Labour officials will hunker down in a swanky hotel on England's south coast Sunday night to whittle down their Brexit options to a single position that will be either rejected or approved Monday.

Corbyn has given every indication that he wants Labour to stay neutral on the defining issue of UK politics.

"No, I am not sitting on the fence," he insisted in a testy ITV interview Friday.

He has promised to negotiate a new divorce deal that maintains closer EU relations and then hold another referendum in which remaining in the bloc is the other option.

But he would not say which of the two he would campaign for -- or whether he actually wants to stay or go.

"The British people will make that final decision," Corbyn told ITV.

Efforts to keep the peace by appeasing both wings of his party are not sitting well with voters ahead of an early election that most expect to happen within months.

A September YouGov survey showed that just half of self-identifying Labour supporters trust Corbyn's ability to "make the right decisions on Brexit".

The same poll said that fewer than 10 percent believed the 2016 Brexit decision was "right".

And an Ipsos MORI analysis found Corbyn's net satisfaction rating at -60. No opposition leader has fared worse in more than forty years.

"This strategy of being all things to all people on Brexit -- it paid off partly in 2017 (elections), but it's not clear that it's going to pay off again," said London School of Economics analyst Sara Hobolt.

"I think it wouldn't be right for Labour to have no opinion on such a big decision," Labour's foreign affairs spokeswoman Emily Thornberry agreed.

"Labour should campaign for remain," she told The Guardian. -AFP