Corbyn raised hopes for a new referendum when he told the Sunday Mirror he would support the idea if members vote for it when Brexit is debated at Labour’s conference in Liverpool on Tuesday.
“I was elected to empower the members of the party. So if conference makes a decision, I will not walk away from it and I will act accordingly,” he said.
However, as more than 100 delegates gathered for a “compositing” meeting on Sunday evening to thrash out a Brexit motion that will be voted on by conference, a string of his senior supporters underlined their concerns about a “people’s vote”.
The shadow business secretary, Rebecca Long-Bailey, whose Salford constituency voted leave, told the Guardian she was concerned the Tories would be able to dictate the question.
“My worry about a second referendum is that they will be holding the pen,” she said. “What will the referendum be on?”
And she added that some Labour-supporting leave voters might feel the party didn’t trust them. “I do worry about it, because I think a lot of people will feel sold-out,” she said. “Some people will think: ‘How many times do you ask before you get the answer you want?’”
Another shadow cabinet minister, Richard Burgon, warned of what he called “a dangerous situation for the whole political class”.
Asked about the prospect of a people’s vote, the shadow justice secretary echoed concerns expressed by shadow chancellor John McDonnell. “I have a real worry that it would unleash the populist right wing,” he said, adding: “I think the role of the Labour party now is to reduce divisions and bring people together.”
Meanwhile, Steve Howell, who oversaw Labour’s digital strategy in 2017 and has written a book about the campaign, warned that a referendum would be “a gift to Farage and co”.
And Len McCluskey, the general secretary of Unite and a staunch supporter of the Labour leadership, told the BBC’s Jon Pienaar he doesn’t believe “remain” should be an option on the ballot paper in the event of another referendum.
“The referendum shouldn’t be on: ‘Do we want to go back into the European Union?’”, he said. “The people have already decided on that. We very rarely have referendums in this country. The people have decided against my wishes and my union’s wishes, but they’ve decided.”
Corbyn and McDonnell have both said in recent weeks that they will not rule out the possibility of a fresh referendum, if they cannot secure a general election. Labour strategists, however, fear they will alienate leave-backing voters in the party’s traditional heartlands if they appear to be seeking to reverse Brexit.
Labour hopes that if Theresa May struggles to get her Brexit deal through parliament, it can push her to call a general election – allowing Labour to take over negotiations with Brussels.
However, the party’s activists overwhelmingly favour a referendum, creating a rare rift between Corbyn and some of the members who joined the party to support him. Some delegates in Liverpool sported T-shirts and badges with the slogan “Love Corbyn, Hate Brexit”.
A “people’s vote” was overwhelmingly the most popular issue raised by constituency Labour parties (CLPs) that submitted so-called “contemporary motions” to conference – but the final wording was negotiated at a packed meeting on Sunday evening, chaired by shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer.
Starmer held a series of one-to-one meetings throughout the day in the hope of reaching a compromise.
Grassroots delegates groups including the youth group FFS and the leftwing groups Another Europe is Possible and Labour for a People’s Vote held briefing meetings, to agree their stance.
Around 75 delegates came for the briefing ahead of the composite negotiations in a room so packed that delegates had to sit on the floor, organisers said.
Though Corbyn, McDonnell and others have repeatedly said they will not rule out a people’s vote, they are under pressure to agree to a firmer, favourable position.
People’s Vote campaigners held a well-attended rally in Liverpool on Sunday, close to the conference centre.
Labour is now due to elect a second deputy leader, alongside party veteran Tom Watson, as part of a controversial set of rule-changes agreed by delegates on Sunday. Some campaigners hope a pro-referendum candidate will stand, as a way of piling fresh pressure on the leadership over the issue.
Eloise Todd, of Best for Britain, said, “Labour’s new female deputy leader should be someone who represents the grassroots of the party, and that means giving the people, not politicians, the final say on the Brexit deal, which is what the overwhelming majority of party members support.”
Watson added to Corbyn’s discomfort at the weekend by telling the Observer his party should “go out and argue” for a new referendum, if Labour members demand it.
“Jeremy and I were elected in 2015 to give the Labour party back to its members,” he said. “So if the people’s party decide they want the people to have a final say on the deal, we have to respect the view of our members and we will go out and argue for it.” He added: “That is what happens when you return the party to the members.”