Can anyone work out Labour’s position on Brexit?

Labour is divided on single market and free movement, writes Ian Dunt


You need powers of clairvoyance to work out Labour’s Brexit policy. There is no consistency of purpose or language, leaving a mess of competing conversations. As things stand, Labour has no voice on the main political issue of the day.

There are at least four camps: The leadership, the shadow Brexit department, the reformers and the abolitionists.

The leadership is made up of Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, who have always been critics of the single market. Their branch of the left views its rules on state aid as a barrier to socialism.

Both have restricted their comments on the single market to saying Britain should have ‘access’ – but refrained from calling for membership. ‘Access’ can mean anything really, but suggests something less than membership.

Last month, McDonnell went further and demanded Labour supporters ‘embrace the enormous opportunities’ of Brexit.

There has been some confusion over whether they would try to amend the bill on triggering Article 50. McDonnell promised not to ‘block or delay it’ but Corbyn seemed to U-turn on that this weekend, saying the opposition would put forward an amendment on ‘market access and [workers’] protections’.

This seems like a significant change and indeed Downing Street instantly accused Labour of trying to ‘frustrate the will of the British people’. But in reality both Corbyn’s demands are accepted government policy.

David Davis had already insisted workers’ rights will not be affected by Brexit. And on single market ‘access’, the Labour demand actually falls short of Theresa May’s own aims, which include ‘maximum possible access to the European market’ including a right for firms to ‘operate within’ it.

Shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer also uses the word ‘access’, but his ‘access’ is not Corbyn’s ‘access’.

Technically speaking, British membership of the single market outside the EU would mean it needs to leave, then join the European Free Trade Association, and then through that join the EEA agreement.

‘Membership will have to lapse,’ he explained to Politico. ‘That’s why I have used the phrase ‘fullest possible access’.’

Starmer is still clearly more lawyer than politician. He is talking in technicalities, not political code. But he does seem to be aiming for the UK to stay in the single market.

The problem with staying in the single market, of course, is that you have to keep freedom of movement. But some believe there may be more wriggle room from Europe on this issue than you’d think.

They might offer an emergency break, ending the requirement for a few years, or maintaining it but with an upper limit – say at 50,000 newcomers a year. Or Europe might be persuaded to restrict free movement to those with a job offer.

Starmer seems to be envisaging this latter option. Speaking to Radio 5 Live’s Pienaar’s Politics this weekend, Starmer said:

“I personally think we should have a discussion on whether the rule should return to its origin, that being the freedom of movement of workers.”

Outside of the leadership and the shadow Brexit department, there are many malcontent Labour MPs demanding firmer action on free movement. At first sight they seem indistinguishable.

A Fabian pamphlet in September saw Rachel Reeves, Emma Reynolds and Stephen Kinnock attack free movement, with Jonathan Reynolds and Chuka Umunna offering the same message a little later.

But dig deeper and there is a split in this group. To discover it you just need to look at the language. Some of them are talking about ending free movement. Others are talking about reforming it.

Kinnock seems to be in the first camp, although he could probably go either way. ‘The limitless nature of freedom of movement… is not socially and politically sustainable,’ he wrote in the Fabian pamphlet.

Rachel Reeves is even firmer. ‘Immigration controls and ending free movement has to be a red line post-Brexit,’ she wrote in the same pamphlet. Jonathan Reynolds seems to be on the same page, telling the Huffington Post that a ‘tweak’ to the status quo ‘would not wash with people’.

On the face of it, Emma Reynolds sounds identical, but she carefully inserts a caveat. She said: ‘It is my strong view that no future deal can retain free movement of people in its present form,’ [italics added]. She clearly envisages a reform of the type outlined above.

Umunna struck precisely the same note as Emma Reynolds:

“If continuation of the free movement we have is the price of single market membership then clearly we couldn’t remain in the single market, but we are not at that point yet.” [italics added]

What’s interesting about these sneaky little caveats is how closely they resemble the rhetoric from Theresa May just after she became leader.

Whenever discussing the subject May would use the same formulation. Voters did not want ‘free movement to continue in the way that it has done in the past’ [italics added], she would say.

Then, on the first day of the Tory party conference, it changed. Reformist Labour MPs are where May was until October 2nd.

The distinction seems minor, but is actually very significant. Freedom of movement is a condition of single market membership. Some people in Labour want to negotiate with Europe to see if they can reform it and stay in the single market.

Some people have already given up on doing so. The difference is that one group see leaving the single market as a consequence of failure in negotiations, the other as the starting position of those negotiations.

The leadership is having an entirely different conversation altogether – on state aid, not free movement – but that same split applies. They are assuming we’re leaving the single market, rather than fighting to keep us in it.

There is a horrible irony to seeing the right of the party and its hard left leadership agree on an issue for completely arbitrary and unconnected reasons.

This deep difference on the major issue of our times prevents Labour having a coherent position on Brexit. But for the time being they appear happy to accept this, rather than having a battle to settle it.

The sooner they come to a firm position, the sooner they will be relevant again to the national conversation.

Ian Dunt is editor of and author of ‘Brexit: What the Hell Happens Now?’ Follow him on Twitter @IanDunt


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11 Responses to “Can anyone work out Labour’s position on Brexit?”

  1. Alasdair Macdonald

    It seems that Labour is in exactly the same state of indecision as HMG.

    Only the SNP, the Greens, PC and the Lib Dems seem to have ideas about what is to be done. We might not agree with what they are proposing, but, at least they are trying to make some kind of progress and to be making their ideas available to the public.

  2. NHSGP

    Minimum tax on economic migrants to make sure that they are net contributors.

    ie. No free access or access below cost to state goods for economic migrants.

  3. Craig Mackay

    Something that needs to be explored much more creatively is the views of the European Union members on freedom of movement. We must not forget that immigration between countries and freedom of movement is one of the key concerns in many European countries. For example, changing the rules so that freedom of movement only applied to individuals with jobs to go to is likely to be something much more widely acceptable. Additionally requiring that salaries do not undercut workers in the same company might further encourage acceptance.
    Brexiteers seem to have the clear idea that the current European Union structure is set in stone and the only way of working with it is from outside. There is widespread dissatisfaction with many aspects of the European project within the European Union and that needs to be worked on. It will be very sad to leave the EU only to find it reforming itself in the way that would be acceptable to the UK.

  4. Michael WALKER

    “Can anyone work out Labour’s position on Brexit?”

    It’s simple.

    Rather like the Hokey Cokey:

    Put your first idea in, shout about it – “Trigger Article 50 NOW”
    Then withdraw it.
    Put your second idea in, shout about it “Unlimted freedom of movement”
    Then shut up about it when everyone shouts at you.
    Then put your third idea in, shout about it. “It’s all the Tories fault”.
    Then repeat it at regular intervals.
    ( Oh it’s not an idea.. never mind)
    After three ideas you give up but keep shouting.

    That, very simply is what Labour have said since the Referendum…

    As far as ideas is required, you need someone with brains, practical experience and political nous.

    That rules out most of the Shadow Cabinet and the Labour Leadership – based on events to date.

    (Not that the Tories are much better)

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