By Campaign Agent Luke Jeffery
Since the surprising performance of the Labour party in June’s general election, their stance on Brexit has come under the spotlight. It has seen a pronounced change, albeit a climb down from their original policy.
Impressively, Labour ran an election campaign on the back of domestic issues with Brexit rarely coming to the fore. For a party that earned the support of both leave and remain voters, why did Labour shy away from tackling the biggest political issue since the Second World War?
There are several reasons to explain this, the most simple of which provides the most clarity. The Labour Party did not have a unified position on what a deal with the European Union would look like, nor a firm negotiating position.
Shortly after the election, Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell confirmed that Labour’s position was a “jobs first” Brexit that prioritised membership of the customs union and access to the single market. McDonnell treaded carefully, as he knew the British people would interpret full membership of the single market as a betrayal of the referendum result.
This would mean that Britain would likely adopt a Norway style agreement, joining the EFTA, if Labour was at the negotiating table, a welcome clarification compared to the Conservative’s position. A transition period as part of the EFTA would allow the UK to participate in the single market through the EEA, and would be subject to the jurisdiction of the EFTA Court compared to the ECJ . There is seasoned debate on the cost-benefit analysis of such a transition period.
Henceforth McDonnell’s explanation, Labour has exuded various positions regarding their position on Brexit. On July 23 Jeremy Corbyn himself stated that the single market was “inextricably linked” to being a member of the European Union; at almost the same time the Shadow International Trade Secretary Barry Gardiner told journalists that staying in the Customs Union after leaving the EU would be a “disaster” for Britain. Contradictory to say the least.
However, this is good opposition politics; various divisions of the Labour party have conflicting ideas on Brexit, yet they are capable of uniting against the Conservative position on the same issue. Labour MPs can agree on the words but not their meaning when pushed on Brexit. By doing so, they avoid sharing the blame that would ultimately be heaped on the Conservatives in the outcome of a bad Brexit deal.
A “jobs-first” and an “exact same benefits” style Brexit during a potentially four year transition period after March 2019, means the same freedom of movement that we have enjoyed for decades and the direct or indirect jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice in the United Kingdom. However, by no means does this policy suggest that Britain would remain a member of the single market and customs union indefinitely. This would resemble what people have been calling a ‘Soft-Brexit’, a position that Labour have, since a statement by Labour’s Brexit spokesman Sir Keir Starmer on August 27th, seemed to have fully endorsed - a welcome lucidity in today’s politics. But why has there been a shift since the start of summer?
Simply, this is because Labour is in no position to exploit the Conservative’s weaknesses. In fact, Labour is as divided over this issue as the Tories are. Jeremy Corbyn’s personal approach to Brexit now contradicts the one adopted by his party, and it is no secret the leader’s distaste for the European Union down the years. Further still, it goes against the desires of the young voters who helped Labour into its current position. Ultimately Labour’s influence in Parliament is hindered by a selection of pro-Leave MPs - who recently voted with the government in the second reading of the ‘Great Repeal Bill’ - yet on the other hand a handful of pro-Remain Conservative MPs and/or the loss of the DUP’s support would turn back the tide in Labour’s favour.
The ‘Soft-Brexit’ position now adopted by Labour is a triumph for the moderate Labour members, and more importantly, if this position is adopted firmly by the whole of the Labour party, it could provide them the means with which to pressure the government into calling another snap general election.
What Labour has done in evolving its Brexit stance has been to openly clarify it. It does, however, remain vague about the final destination of Britain outside the European Union, but also opens up a degree of flexibility in Labour’s position. Perhaps more importantly, the new position answers calls for Labour to adopt a policy that is identifiably different to the one the Conservative government is pursuing.
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Image Rights: Chatham House @ Flickr