Does Labour have a third way on Brexit?

Ian Dunt

Jeremy Corbyn published an article in the Mirror this weekend outlining Labour’s Brexit policy ahead of the start of talks. Taken at face value it is garbled nonsense, but dig a little deeper and there are hints of something interesting in there.

There’s a lot of wishful thinking with Labour Brexit positions. Their contributions are written in such strange code that you can arrive at various interpretations about what they mean. When things get desperate, it’s tempting to project your hopes onto them.

They want you to do that. These little Labour position statements are incredibly flirty. First they offer assurances to Labour Leave voters - in this case saying the Brexit issue is “settled” - and then they start smiling seductively at Remainers and whispering sweet nothings into their ear.

Usually they are just that: sweet nothings. Corbyn has done impressive work convincing many EU supporters he’s on side by constantly saying he’d seek ‘tariff-free access to the single market’, despite this being a much lower bar than what even the Conservatives are offering.

He’s also quite shameless at passing off his own decisions as those forced on him by others. In the Mirror article, for instance, he repeats a line he always says when talking about Brexit: “Leaving the EU will mean freedom of movement will end.” This is a lie. Leaving the EU doesn’t mean free movement will end. Leaving the single market does that and you do not have to leave the single market just because you’re leaving the EU. He is choosing to do so. But saying it in this way allows Corbyn to reassure Labour Leave voters concerned about immigration while pretending to his young metropolitan support base that his hands are tied on the issue. You might call it good politics - or the same drabby self-serving political cynicism Corbyn claims to represent a break from. Your call.

Up until now, that defined Corbyn’s approach. He wanted out of the single market at all costs. This wasn’t due to free movement. Corbyn, to his credit, had no issue with that at all, as he made clear in his conference speech after the referendum. His opposition is based on the perception that its rules on state aid preclude a domestic nationalisation programme.

Corbyn was silently supported in this by the right of the Labour party and those with northern constituencies, who didn’t feel they could defend free movement on the doorstep. But there was another group of Labour MPs - exemplified by shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer - who wanted to try to negotiate reform of free movement in the single market and then only leave if we failed.

That’s been the Labour status quo for some time, with those two groups having a back-stage tug of war over policy. During the election, for instance, Starmer’s speech outlined his camp’s position, while the manifesto outlined Corbyn’s. But the Mirror article contains some interesting new wrinkles on this dynamic.

Corbyn talks about establishing a “new relationship” with the single market. What would this relationship look like? Well first of all it would be led by priorities, not outcomes. Jobs and living standards would be the chief determinant of what happens. The “exact mechanism for achieving that is less important than ensuring jobs”, Corbyn says. He also promises “no new non-tariff burdens”. This is a much higher benchmark than simple 'tariff-free access’. It is almost impossible to imagine how you’d leave the single market with no new non-tariff burdens.

So what’s going on here? Is this a clever attempt to stay in the single market without saying so - by setting conditions for exit which they know will never be fulfilled? Has Corbyn had a change of heart?

Or perhaps it’s the opposite. Corbyn knows Remainers have nowhere else to go. He can bank them with his sweet nothings, offering constant hope which is always just tantalisingly out of reach while pursuing a hard Brexit policy in reality.

Or maybe, to use a phrase he’d particularly detest, there is a third way.

Last week, Rebecca Long-Bailey - shadow business secretary and close ally of John McDonnell - said something very interesting. First she got rid of talk about single market membership, calling it a “moot point”. That’s disingenuous, but whatever. They’re clearly not willing to go there. Then she said Labour would pursue “impediment-free access” to the single market (code for no new non-tariff barriers) and that the price of this might be that “there will have to be some element of free movement”.

That’s telling. Remember again Corbyn’s conference speech just after the referendum, in which it was clear he had no issue with free movement but would anyway chose to leave the single market. That fits well with Long-Bailey’s comments.

What would this mean in reality? It allows Labour to leave the single market but then unilaterally offer something akin to free movement - this time as a decision of the British government rather than a rule of membership from Brussels. Maybe we would allow all EU citizens to come for as long as they like, or only those with a job offer in the UK, or those who could demonstrate the means to support themselves - which is anyway not so far from current European case law. On free movement, everything would change and everything would basically stay the same.

These kinds of big offers would be used to leverage more robust reductions in tariffs and non-tariff barriers. It wouldn’t eradicate them altogether, but it allows for a considerably more flexible approach than May has. And to Corbyn’s credit, it reflects a team which would prioritise jobs and living standards over immigration. It is also not a million miles away from Starmer’s view, which would seek similar reforms inside the single market.

It wouldn’t be perfect by any means. The economic effects of leaving the single market would still be hugely damaging, especially to financial services, IT and telecommunications and transport. Those industries would be damaged, hurting jobs and reducing revenue to the Treasury, thereby making it harder to deliver the kind of generous welfare state Corbyn presumably wants. It doesn’t even begin to grapple with the real issues, like how we would replicate financial services regulation in a way that allows a close relationship while not turning ourselves into underlings. But it is better than the government position and better than Corbyn’s previous position.

That’s if it’s true, of course. This is really nothing more than educated guesswork - a strange new political tradition of trying to work out what the hell Labour’s position is on Brexit. It shouldn’t be this way. They should be straight with the British people on what they are trying to achieve on one of the biggest political questions of their lifetime. But failing that, at least there is some evidence of proper thinking, a greater degree of flexibility and a more sensible set of priorities than we’re seeing from the government team.

Ian Dunt is the editor of Politics.co.uk. His book - Brexit: What The Hell Happens Now? - is available now.

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