24th Mar 2018

Column / Brexit Briefing

Corbyn re-opens Labour's single market wound

  • Corbyn's (l) Labour party might need rescuing without the youth Remain vote. (Photo: European Commission)

The best tactic in politics when your opponents are tying themselves in knots is to stay quiet and keep handing them the rope.

Labour has spent the six weeks since its surprise resurgence at the June election enjoying Theresa May’s descent to ‘lame duck’ status and her marriage of inconvenience to Northern Irish Unionists (at a cost of £1 billion) to stay in power.

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There is no shortage of withering criticism of the government’s handling of the Brexit talks in Whitehall and from political pundits across the right and left divide. Schadenfreude is in healthy supply.

So Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s decision on Sunday (23 July) to rule out the idea that the UK could remain in the single market post-Brexit makes little sense.

To Corbyn, single market membership is “dependent on membership of the EU”.

“What we have said all along is that we want tariff-free trade access to the European market and a partnership with Europe in the future”.

Aside from the legal inaccuracies with this appraisal, the problem with Corbyn’s position is that it sounds identical to what right-wing Brexiteers, David Davis and Liam Fox, are advocating.

Corbyn’s trade spokesman, Barry Gardiner, then doubled down on this stance on Tuesday (25 July). Staying in the single market would mean the UK would “technically not be a member of the EU, but we would in effect become a vassal state”.

This position should not come as too much of a surprise. Corbyn and his main allies, shadow chancellor John McDonnell and communications chief Seamus Milne, come from the Labour faction that views the EU as a "capitalist’s club".

Jacques Delors’s wooing of the British trade union movement in the late 1980s, by promising that employment rights and social protection would be at the heart of the internal market, did little to shift Corbyn and co’s euroscepticism.

There are, however, several problems. Labour remains a largely pro-European party and around 60-65 percent of their supporters voted Remain in the June 2016 referendum.

First-time voters

The party’s surge on 8 June – claiming 40 percent of the vote and denying Theresa May her majority – was, in large part, on the back of a tidal wave of first-time voters, most of them under 25 years old, and most of them Remain supporters. Seats with Remain majorities saw most of the largest swings to Labour.

A survey by the LabourList website indicated that 72 percent wanted the party to push for Britain to remain in the trading bloc after Brexit, compared to 19 percent that wanted the party to support leaving the single market.

Meanwhile, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) – whose members are Labour’s main financial backers – argued this week that the UK should “follow the lead of other European countries which are in the single market but which have chosen to exercise more control over migration”.

While Corbyn’s personal popularity is higher than ever – he has used the past six weeks to cement his position as politician-cum-rockstar cum-messiah, drawing huge and adoring crowds at the Glastonbury festival – it’s hard to see how Labour can win without the youth Remain vote.

If young voters can’t re-wind the clock to change the referendum result, they would at least want single market access and freedom of movement.

“What happens when all those first-time voters realise that Jeremy supports a ‘hard Brexit’ as much as the Tories?” worries one senior Labour politician.

This isn’t the first post-election skirmish on the issue on Labour’s benches. Four front-bench spokespersons were dismissed from Corbyn’s team last month after being among 49 Labour MPs to support an amendment to the Queen’s Speech, demanding that Britain remain in the single market.

'Why say anything?'

That amendment achieved little other than allowing the Conservatives to point out that Labour was just as divided as them on Brexit. The smart option is to leave every Brexit option on the table.

Having put themselves within striking distance of returning to government within the next two years, re-opening party divisions by ruling out single market membership is a baffling tactical blunder.

One of the few perks of being in the Opposition is that you don’t have to make the painful and unpopular decisions that are the daily reality of government.

“Why say anything? It’s the Tories’ mess, leave them to it,” says another exasperated Labour veteran. It’s hard to disagree.

Benjamin Fox, a former reporter for EUobserver, is a freelance writer.


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