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Is Labour making a EU-turn?

Henry Anderson

Jeremy Corbyn’s announcement on The Andrew Marr Show last weekend, ruling out single market membership after Brexit, prompted an intense and often perplexing debate within the party. Labour was now in favour of access to, but not membership of, the single market. The announcement was unexpected, and it took a few days before Labour’s website was updated to reflect this new position.

Shadow International Trade Secretary, Barry Gardiner, seemed to signal further change when he suggested that Labour backed leaving the customs union. Remarkably, this represented a contradiction not only of his own previous views but also party policy, as it was quickly denied by the leadership. John McDonnell then attempted to square the circle by suggesting that it was possible the UK could remain a member of the single market, a stance also backed by Keir Starmer.

Confusing? This could just be a preview.

For a long time, it was the Conservatives who clashed over Europe. David Cameron struggled to stop his party from “banging on about Europe”. Labour, in contrast, was broadly pro-EU, in favour of close economic links, the single market and freedom of movement. Now, as Jeremy Corbyn begins to define his stance on Brexit, it might be Labour’s turn to tear itself apart over Europe.

Corbyn’s scepticism towards the EU is nothing new. Before becoming Leader, he had consistently opposed EU integration, voting against the Maastricht Treaty in 1993 and the Lisbon Treaty in 2008. This was historically a position outside of mainstream Labour opinion.

Brexit, however, has prompted Labour MPs to reassess their attitude towards the EU. Unlike his previous life as a rebellious backbencher, Jeremy Corbyn is now joined by a significant number of colleagues who share his stance on Europe. Labour MPs from across the party have called for stricter controls on immigration that can only be achieved outside the single market – a hard Brexit.

Caroline Flint, Europe Minister under Gordon Brown and a vocal critic of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, has called for Labour to respect the result of the referendum. Calling on the party to be “straight with people on Brexit,” she argued, “those who aim to keep us in the single market know full well that this is EU membership in all but name.”

Calls for controls on immigration to be central to any Brexit deal have come from Dan Jarvis and Yvette Cooper, while Deputy Leader Tom Watson has acknowledged that immigration restrictions will need to be implemented post-Brexit. This evolving position towards EU immigration was highlighted in the 2017 manifesto, which promised an end to free movement.

On the other side of the divide stand Labour MPs who prioritise single market membership over ending free movement. They argue the UK could adopt a Norway-style model and retain a close relationship with Europe.

Continued single market membership, Chuka Umunna has said, is “crucial” for social justice as it ensures “protections for workers, consumers and the environment”. He has described leaving the single market as a “Tory position” and called for “clear red water” between Labour and other parties on Brexit. Others have raised the economic advantages of the single market. Heidi Alexander, who characterised Barry Gardiner’s argument as “depressing and disingenuous,” summarised this position as “economy first, immigration second.”

Opposition to a hard Brexit has also come from Wales and Scotland. Welsh First Minister, Carwyn Jones, quickly contradicted Jeremy Corbyn’s statement that single market membership was “inextricably linked” to EU membership, claiming his argument made “no sense at all.” In Scotland, Kezia Dugdale has previously called for the benefits of freedom of movement and access to the single market to be retained.

So what is Labour’s policy on Brexit? At the moment, there isn’t one.

Instead Corbyn and a significant grouping of MPs are pushing for a hard Brexit, opposed by Labour rebels and the devolved parties.

It is difficult to see how these two positions, one prioritising single market membership and the other controls on immigration, can be reconciled. Until now, Labour could adopt an ambiguous stance on Brexit that papered over the cracks in the party. As negotiations unfold, these cracks are likely to become more and more apparent as disagreement and debate takes place in public.

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