UK's Labour walks Brexit tightrope in EU election campaign


LONDON (AP) — Britain’s opposition parties were out campaigning Thursday for the upcoming European Parliament election. The governing Conservatives just wished it wasn’t happening.

For months, Prime Minister Theresa May’s government promised this election wouldn’t be held in Britain, because the country would have left the European Union by now. But Brexit is on hold amid political deadlock, and so Britons will vote May 23 for lawmakers to fill 73 U.K. seats in the 751-seat EU legislature.

The contest is, inevitably, dominated by Brexit.

The U.K.’s biggest opposition party, Labour, launched its campaign Thursday with an attempt to appeal to Brexit-backers and pro-Europeans alike.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said at a rally in Gillingham, southern England, that “the real divide in our country is not how people voted in the EU referendum. The real divide is between the many and the few.”

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“A vote for Labour is a vote to bring our divided country back together,” Corbyn said.

But the left-of-center party is walking a tightrope by trying to appeal to both sides of the Brexit divide. Labour favors leaving the EU on its own terms, but opposes the government’s Brexit deal, which has been rejected by Parliament three times. Labour and the government are holding talks about striking a compromise agreement, so far without success.

Under Corbyn, a long-time critic of the EU, Labour says it won’t try to overturn voters’ decision to leave the EU. But Corbyn said Labour would support a new referendum on membership in the bloc if that is the only way to stop “the government’s bad deal” or a chaotic no-deal Brexit.

The ambiguity infuriates many Labour members, who believe the party would do better at the polls if it adopted a firmly anti-Brexit stance.

“If Labour stands in the middle of the road on Brexit we’ll get run over from both directions,” lawmaker Mary Creagh said.

The Conservatives are barely campaigning, and expect a hammering from pro-Brexit and pro-EU voters alike. May still hopes Parliament will ratify a divorce deal with the EU before the next session of the European Parliament begins in early July. If that happens, the 73 British lawmakers elected this month will never take their seats.

The most enthusiastic parties in the election are those with strong views on Brexit, whether for or against.

The Brexit Party led by former U.K. Independence Party leader Nigel Farage is drawing hundreds of people to rallies across the country with its simple narrative: Brexit has been betrayed by a London political elite.

Meanwhile, the newly formed Change U.K. party is one of several parties fighting to attract the votes of pro-EU citizens fed up with the Conservatives and Labour.

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The centrist Liberal Democrats are also feeling optimistic. The party, which backs a new referendum that would give voters with the option of remaining in the EU, saw its vote share soar in local elections last week.

The party was kicking off its official election campaign Thursday under the blunt slogan: “Bollocks to Brexit.”

Lib Dem leader Vince Cable defended the slogan, which has been criticized by some as vulgar.

“It is an attempt to put in a more pungent way what a lot of people think,” he said.


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