Labour threw away a chance to defeat the government, writes Molly Scott Cato MEP.
There’s no other way of saying it. The decision by the Labour leadership to whip MPs into abstaining on the Lords’ amendment on effectively remaining in the single market – was based on deception and distortion.
This winnable cross-party amendment on staying in the European Economic Area was opposed by Labour on the pretext that joining the EEA prevents the UK being in a customs union with the EU.
Yet it was clear long before Wednesday’s vote that EEA membership together with a customs union – the so-called Norway+ model – is perfectly feasible. Michael Barnier made this clear to me personally during a private meeting earlier in the week and I rapidly spread the word.
Despite this, Jeremy Corbyn continued to peddle a line he knows to be false, saying that being a member of the EEA “does not allow us to negotiate a new comprehensive UK-EU customs union.”
During the Commons debate yesterday afternoon, Keir Starmer let slip the real reason why Labour wouldn’t support this amendment when he said that the EEA “provides little flexibility in relation to the four freedoms.” That’s code for: it allows freedom of movement – which, shamefully, is a red line for Labour.
Labour’s own alternative amendment, on ‘full access to the internal market’, was lost decisively by 82 votes. It was always destined to fail and appears to have been little more than a fudge to try and appease Labour Remain MPs. It has also been dismissed as “cakeism” by senior EU officials, who have always resisted the unrealistic idea that we will have a chance to negotiate the rules of a club we have decided to leave.
Indeed, why should Norway accept that the UK gets these superior rights when it has accepted that being in the single market without membership of the EU means being a rule taker.
And this is why for myself and fellow Greens the EEA model is far from perfect. But apart from stopping Brexit altogether, which is definitely my preferred choice through a People’s Vote, remaining in the EEA with a customs union arrangement is the least damaging option available.
Not only would this protect jobs and safeguard our economy, it would also enshrine EU environmental and human rights regulations in UK law – both also rejected in the Commons votes on the EU Withdrawal Bill last night. And it would provide a solution to the otherwise intractable Irish border question.
Not only have Labour let down the country by failing to support the EEA amendment, the misguided fudge has been hugely damaging for the Party.
It resulted in the biggest backbench revolt since Jeremy Corbyn became leader, with six junior frontbenchers resigning from their roles and 75 Labour MPs voting for the EEA. It has reopened the deep divisions within Labour over Brexit and will reignite questions over Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.
Labour threw away a chance to defeat the government this week. It has left the country heading towards the economic precipice and people asking what exactly our opposition is for.
Molly Scott Cato is Green MEP for the South West of England.Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.