CHATHAM, England (Reuters) - Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn urged Britain on Thursday to look beyond Brexit and vote for his opposition party’s fight against austerity at this month’s European election, a poll he blamed on the government’s “complete failure” to leave the European Union.
Almost three years after Britain voted to leave, parties now have to take part in the May 23 election to the European Parliament, a poll which exposes the deepening chaos of Brexit and offers a new opportunity for voters to punish politicians.
With little clarity over how, when and even if Brexit will happen, Labour and the governing Conservatives are braced for a painful election, when smaller parties will try to lure away their supporters with simple pro- and anti-Brexit positions.
Launching Labour’s campaign, Corbyn, whose party is also deeply divided over how or whether Britain should leave the EU, argued that binary positions on Brexit would do little to heal the country’s rifts, something he said was allowing the growth of the far right.
But while saying the election should not be seen through the prism of Brexit, he gave little hope that talks with the government on finding a deal to get Prime Minister Theresa May’s deal through parliament, were progressing quickly.
Instead, he was clear he much preferred an election to a second referendum, risking fuelling anger from several lawmakers in his party who say the only way to break the Brexit impasse is to turn once again to the people to decide.
But Corbyn said a second referendum could be the kind of “healing process” the country needed.
“It is Labour that wants to bring our country back together,” he told dozens of students and supporters at a university in the southeastern county of Kent, parts of which voted to leave the EU at the 2016 referendum.
“So whether you voted leave or remain in 2016, I urge you to vote Labour, the party that is determined to bring the many together and take on the entrenched power of the few.”
It is a message that Corbyn, an instinctive critic of the EU, has long wanted to return to, hoping in vain for months that the chaos over Britain’s departure would bring down the government and trigger a national election.
May has so far remained in office, refusing on Wednesday to offer her lawmakers a timetable detailing her plans to resign.
But Corbyn said a new election could not be far off. “I am looking forward to putting forward (his policies to improve social divisions) in a general election which cannot be that far away.”
“I am ready for it. Don’t worry about that.”
Corbyn sees his anti-austerity message as a vote winner after it helped Labour’s much stronger than expected showing in a 2017 parliamentary election. That result left May to rely on the support of a Northern Irish party to prop up her government.
May has never been weaker. Her divorce deal, agreed with the EU in November, has been rejected three times by parliament, her cabinet team of top ministers are at odds over it, and many party supporters are refusing to campaign in the EU elections.
But to try to keep her deal alive, May entered into talks with Labour to try to find a way to get the necessary support to have it ratified by parliament.
Corbyn was downbeat on the chance of success, despite both parties committing to further talks next week.
“The talks we are having with the government have been difficult because ... the government is in some degree of disarray itself,” he said.
“There will be further meetings coming up. But quite honestly the government has to move its red lines.”
The two sides have so far been unable to reach any agreement on the future customs arrangements with the EU, with Labour wanting a permanent customs union - something that would enrage many of May’s Conservative Brexit supporters.
With little sign of an end to the standoff, Corbyn is under increasing pressure to throw his support behind a second referendum, or confirmatory vote, on any Brexit deal, but he has so far failed to move.
He again said on Thursday that such a vote would be needed only to stop a “bad” Conservative Brexit or an attempt to leave the bloc without an agreement.
Reporting by Elizabeth Piper; Editing by Frances Kerry and Alison Williams