Labour is braced for a “good kicking” in the European Parliament elections, shadow chancellor John McDonnell has said.
His comments come after deputy Labour leader Tom Watson said the party must “find some backbone” and fully commit to a second referendum on Brexit to have any chance of winning the next general election.
Mr McDonnell said he understood Mr Watson’s frustration, but that the party had been right to “tread a really difficult road” of trying to bring Leave and Remain supporters back together.
The shadow chancellor said Labour would pay an electoral price for that stance when European Parliament results begin to be announced late on Sunday.
Mr McDonnell told Sky News: “I think we most probably will get a good kicking in the election results tonight.
“We’ll see. We are braced for that.”
He added: “But, you know, we had to do the responsible thing.
“It was a hard road to follow. But someone had to be there and say ‘Can we bring the country back together again?’
“And it would have been easy to go to one side, go to the Remain side and ignored all those people who voted Leave – that’s not the nature of our party.
“We are the party that is trying to bring people back together again.
“That’s been difficult electorally for us in these elections, of course it has.
“But now we have got to move on.”
Mr Watson said he feared the results of the European elections would show that voters had deserted the party and blamed Labour’s ambiguous position on a public vote.
The party must stop “hedging its bets” and urgently rethink its stance in order to realign itself with its members, he added.
Writing in The Observer, he said: “For our party’s sake, but most of all for Britain’s sake, Labour needs to find some backbone on Brexit, find our voice – and do it fast.”
He added: “Our performance (in the European elections) is a direct result of our mealy-mouthed backing for a public vote on Brexit when it is being demanded loud and clear by the overwhelming majority of our members and voters.
“Polls show Labour has been losing up to four times more voters to parties giving full backing to a people’s vote than to (Nigel) Farage.
“And those same polls show we would have beaten him by a country mile if we had unambiguously backed a public vote on any form of Brexit.
“Once results are in, we must channel our frustration into winning those voters back. Never again can Labour policy on the most crucial issue of our generation be on the wrong side of its members and voters.”
Mr Watson described the party’s stance on a second referendum as “a deliberate, self-defeating attempt to triangulate between different groups”.
Boss of the Unite union Len McCluskey hit back at Mr Watson with strong criticism of his stance.
He told the BBC: “Tom Watson’s already out, surprise surprise, trying to take on the role of Prince Machiavelli, but I’ve got news for Tom.
“Machiavelli was effective. He’s a poor imitation of that.
“If he’s trying to turn Labour members against Corbyn and in his favour, then he’s going to lose disastrously.
“And there will be others in the coming days who try and do the same – now is the time to hold your nerve, because a general election which is the only thing that will resolve this situation, is closer now than anything.”
Ahead of the European elections, Jeremy Corbyn saw off an attempt by pro-EU members to commit the party to a confirmatory referendum on any Brexit deal.
The party’s ruling National Executive Committee agreed that its manifesto would instead stick to the wording of a motion passed by Labour conference last year, which keeps a public vote on the table as a last option.
This decision was made by a “small number of people” and should instead be made by party members, Mr Watson said.
The deputy leader also vowed to support calls for Labour’s Brexit policy to be changed before the autumn party conference.
“I fear that unless our policy on Brexit changes we will not have the opportunity to be the radical reforming government that so many millions of people in our country need,” he said.
“The campaign to change that begins now.”