The membership is for Remain
London4Europe Committee Member Michael Romberg writes: the Labour leadership is pro Brexit. It wants a hard Brexit with the UK outside the Single Market and without Freedom of Movement. Its political manoeuvring points to seeking an early election fought on a pro-Brexit platform. Today’s post looks at the Labour leadership's stance; the next post in the series shows how Labour – and Conservative - Remainers are fighting back against their parties’ leaderships. The last is an open letter to Keir Starmer.
Most individual members of the Labour party are for Remain by a long way. For example, almost 90% of Labour members voted Remain in 2016; YouGov found in July 2018 that 70% of Labour voters thought the 2016 referendum decision was wrong. The January 2018 Report by Queen Mary College found almost 90% of Labour Party members wanted to stay in the single market and customs union and almost 80% wanted a second referendum on the deal. Many prominent Labour MPs are currently campaigning for staying in the EU and/or the Single Market and for the People’s Vote.
But whatever the formal party processes for setting party policy, in practice the leadership determines party policy. Any doubt about what that is should be removed by the party’s voting stance on the key Lords amendments to the EU (Withdrawal) Bill in June 2018. Labour is a party of hard Brexit. Jolyon Maugham analyses the position in a different way from this article but reaches much the same position in this blog.
Step 1 for Labour Remainers is to see clearly where the party is. Those who believe that the Labour leadership is really somehow for Remain can only be half-hearted in their moves to change the Party’s stance. Labour Remainers need to distinguish clearly between the party as is and the party as they would like it to be.
Labour supported something close to a real customs union. But as Jeremy Corbyn’s last big Brexit speech in February 2018 made clear, he wishes a fantasy customs union that will not be available. The UK would have the freedom to strike its own deals and a say on the deals the EU made. These are powers not available to EU member states. It won’t happen.
Labour ordered its MPs to abstain on the vote on the Lords amendment to stay in the Norway-style European Economic Area; in practice abstention meant backing the government. Substantial numbers of Labour MPs defied the whip to vote – mostly in favour of the EEA but some in support of the Government. The EEA is of course the only membership of the single market that is on offer from the EU.
The official labour line was to support their own amendment that the government should obtain all the trade benefits of being in the single market. That too is in line with Jeremy Corbyn’s February speech. But it meant that he was promising a Boris-style Brexit with all the trade benefits of EU membership but none of the costs, something which Theresa May has if not yet abandoned at least toned down.
Corbyn, for all his fine speeches on not blaming immigrants, has sided with his anti-immigration MPs and sees freedom of movement as the problem, not as an opportunity for British people, not as an opportunity for EU integration. The 2017 Labour manifesto was clear on the point.
But unless the EU abandons its commitment to the linkages of the four freedoms hostility to freedom of movement means no membership of the single market/ EEA. When the Swiss tried to negotiate a significant curtailment of freedom of movement following their own referendum the EU rejected the idea. The linkage seems firm.
Labour representatives Keir Starmer and Emily Thornberry disingenuously rejected single market membership because it would not keep the Irish border open and trade flowing freely; they would rely on a customs union. But of course the Irish border needs both single market membership and a customs union to stay open: Norway Plus.
What sort of Brexit does Labour want?
So Labour’s leadership wish for a Brexit with two characteristics.
First, no freedom of movement – presumably because they fear the anti-immigration vote will desert them.
Second, while the Labour leadership would like to be close to the EU they do not wish to be subject to rules that would constrain them in their pursuit of socialism. We need to be clear that what the leadership wish to achieve in Britain is not EU-style social democracy. That, obviously, is available in the EU: French healthcare, German training and worker co-determination, Swedish welfare, Dutch care for left-behind communities. The arguments put forward by Lexit supporters have been comprehensively demolished, not least by events – the Conservative government renationalised the East Coast mainline with no problem from the EU. So Jeremy Corbyn and supporters wish for a Lexit with characteristics outside the EU norm but have not told us what they actually intend to do that requires Brexit to achieve. (The same is of course true for the Conservative Brexit ultras who call for freedom from EU regulation without ever getting into specifics.)
Meaningful Vote/ Referendum on the Terms
Labour were clear in wanting maximum Parliamentary control over the process – good.
But Labour do not support a referendum on the terms – the only realistic mechanism for stopping Brexit. No Labour front bencher supported the march for a People’s Vote. Keir Starmer reportedly said in June 2018 that he has an open mind on the question. But Owen Smith was sacked in March 2018 for advocating a referendum. Starmer himself has repeatedly made clear that Labour would not seek to overturn the result (also here). So it is hard to take Keir Starmer’s latest stated position seriously as a policy stance (as opposed to canny political messaging to keep Remainers on board).
What is the Labour Leadership’s political plan?
Keir Starmer’s six tests will be failed by the Government. Labour have said they will send the Government back to negotiate some more. That is pointless – only trivial changes will be available.
Labour’s leadership want Brexit. And they are like the Conservative Brexit ultras. Any Brexit will do – it can always be sorted out once we are out.
So we should assume that Labour are positioning themselves for the next general election. That could come before Brexit. If so, Labour would presumably campaign on a pro-Brexit platform, while telling the electorate it was opposed to Theresa May’s hard Brexit. As in 2017 some would misunderstand that as meaning that Labour supported Remain (in December 2017 over half of student Labour voters thought that Jeremy Corbyn and Labour stood for Remain; over 40% of Labour voters thought the same). Other voters would simply prioritise a Labour government over Remain.
We have to recognise that Labour is a Brexit party. People’s desire that Labour should be seen as the good guys of Brexit should not blind them to that fact. Reasons for that stance vary.
Keir Starmer is right when he cannot think of an advantage to Brexit. His six tests speech on 27 March 2017 ended with a coda listing some of Britain’s real problems – and pointing out that none of them would be addressed by Brexit. Starmer is right that it would be deeply corrosive of political trust for the referendum to be just set aside. But that is no argument against a people’s vote on the terms. If the same electorate who in 2016 voted in favour of Brexit-the-idea in early 2019 when they see Brexit-the-plan make an informed choice to Remain in the EU who has betrayed whom? The people cannot betray themselves.
Labour Remainers are organising to change the Labour Party’s stance. The next article in this series looks at what they – and their Conservative counter-parts – are doing.
Blogs on this page reflect the views of the author and not necessarily those of London4Europe