BRIGHTON, England — Ben Asson drove 200 miles (320 kilometers) and slept in his car to deliver a message to Britain’s Labour Party and its left-wing leader, Jeremy Corbyn.

The brewer from Wales stood outside the seaside conference center hosting the opposition party’s annual gathering with a hand-written sign: “Get real, JC. Stop riding the fence. Stand up for our EU rights.”

“Brexit is the biggest question,” said Asson, who wants a new referendum on membership in the bloc. “Everything else is just moving around the deckchairs on the Titanic.”

Some 48 percent of British voters backed staying in the European Union in last year’s referendum, and many of them hope Labour can soften or stop Brexit. Hundreds of demonstrators marched past the conference on Sunday, urging the party to back an “exit from Brexit.”

But the party is hesitating over picking up the anti-Brexit mantle. Labour has yet to decide whether it wants the U.K. to be in the EU, semi-detached or fully outside the bloc.

Pro-EU party members failed to get a vote on keeping Britain inside the EU single market onto the agenda at the four-day conference, which runs until Wednesday in the English seaside city of Brighton.

Labour finance spokesman John McDonnell, a Corbyn ally, said Monday said there needed to be “a bit more consensus-building” before a decision.

But lawmaker Heidi Alexander said Labour looked like “a laughing stock” for dodging the issue.

The Brexit divide is clouding what should be an upbeat gathering. Labour stunned pundits and pollsters in June’s snap election by reducing Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservatives to a minority administration.

Labour’s old-school socialist policies — nationalizing railways, scrapping university fees, giving all children free school lunches — appealed to many voters weary after seven years of spending cuts by the Conservative government.

While Labour didn’t win, its result far outstripped expectations, and made the 68-year-old Corbyn a hero to the party’s growing and increasingly youthful membership.

The bearded, no-frills Corbyn is greeted like a rock star at mass rallies across the country. As the conference opened Sunday, delegates in the auditorium belted out his now-ubiquitous theme song: “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn,” sung to the riff from the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army.”

Some grass-roots Labour members feel like they’ve got their party back after the slick, centrist “New Labour” years under former Prime Minister Tony Blair and his successors.

“It used be very suit-orientated,” said delegate Andrew Ward, sporting a kilt, a red Labour t-shirt and multiple facial piercings. “It’s not now. It’s very inclusive of young people. It’s for everybody.”

Many Labour lawmakers and party officials are less enthusiastic about the party’s new direction — and Corbyn’s position on the EU is one reason why.

Corbyn opposed Britain joining the bloc in the 1970s, and he was a half-hearted campaigner for remaining during last year’s referendum.

Many in the party want to keep Britain’s economy close to the EU after Brexit by staying inside the bloc’s single market in goods and services and its tariff-free customs union. But Corbyn says staying in the single market could tie the hands of a future Labour government by limiting state aid to industry.

He also says a Labour government would limit immigration, a repudiation of the EU principle of free movement.

Some in the party worry that Labour is betraying its internationalist principles.

“We are not being honest about the cost of Brexit,” lawmaker Seema Malhotra told a meeting at the conference. “In my local hospital, there’s a 15 percent vacancy rate for doctors and nurses” as EU citizens begin to leave.

She said Europeans have begun to feel unwelcome in Britain, “and that is an outrageous message for us to be sending.”

So far, Labour has committed only to staying in the single market and customs union during a limited transition period after Brexit.

That is also the view of the government. May said last week that Britain is willing to keep paying into EU coffers, and abiding by EU rules, for two years after the U.K. formally leaves the bloc in March 2019.

The party’s ambiguity on Brexit is, in a sense, pragmatic. Labour leaders are trying to appeal to “remain” voters in London and other big cities, and to people in struggling former industrial towns who voted to leave.

For now, Labour is waiting — to see whether the divorce negotiations grind to a halt, or whether May’s challengers in the Conservative Party try to topple her.

“What I’m hoping is that there will be a general election before these negotiations are over,” said Labour’s Brexit spokesman, Keir Starmer. “So that we can take over the negotiations and we can fight for the sort of relationship with Europe that we believe in.”

The precise details of that relationship remain to be seen.

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JILL LAWLESS
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