An unholy alliance of Thatcherites and Bennites are placing ideology before the national interest – and it is time they were called out on it, argues Jonathon Hawkes
‘As we leave the European Union, by definition, we will be out of the single market and we’ll be out of the customs union,’ asserted international trade secretary Liam Fox on Radio 4 recently, with the fateful inevitability of a man hurtling toward a ravine in castaway dinghy.
Sadly, this ‘our hands are tied’ attitude toward continued single market membership has spread to the leadership of the Labour party. Barry Gardiner’s now infamous Guardian article sought to end continued membership as a Labour aspiration, a position seemingly unbeknownst to several shadow cabinet members and despite conference clearly voting for the opposite position less than a year ago.
It is vital this view is challenged. Not only is it incorrect, leaving the single market risks plunging the country into recession, taking the living standards of working people down with it. That is why it is important that those who claim we now cannot stay in the single market make clear if they believe that this is – as they seem to imply – simply an inevitable, unfortunate consequence of the referendum result or if there are more deep rooted ideological motivations for their positions.
As many have pointed out leaving the single market risks being economically ruinous. Making it more difficult for businesses to trade will lead to fewer jobs and rising prices. Nor is it inevitable. it is entirely possible to be outside the EU and inside the single market. Norway effectively achieve this though the European Economic Area, as does Iceland. Even if there were no precedent, we are in a negotiation. A negotiation with partner countries who face similar pressures around immigration and economic stability as we do, as well as comparable populist movements from right and left seeking to exploit them. It reveals a paucity of ambition not to believe that achieving a deal that addresses these pressures while not sacrificing the single market is in the art of the possible. For that reason alone, the Tories have been irresponsible to take the best possible outcome to negotiations off the table before we even started. Labour must argue to put it back on the agenda.
There is something else – a semi-hidden, disingenuous, underlie to this pincer movement against continued membership. Despite his protestations that this is simply a detail of the referendum result, the truth is that Fox has long subscribed to the Thatcherite free market economics that viewed with ideological suspicion the collectivism inherent in the EU that drove up standards for everyone. On the hard-left, leaving the EU has long appealed to those who believe that an isolationist, ‘socialism on one country’ model is the opportunity to introduce the economic protectionism that seeks to exchange competitiveness and open markets for democratic centralism.
The Brexiteers of left and right need to come clean. Is it their view that we are now obliged to leave the single market or has that been the political aspiration all along? If it is the former, there is a weight of evidence, precedent and practice that says otherwise. If it is the latter – let’s have that debate in the open, not hide behind the negotiations or the referendum result. Thousands of Labour activists – including our members of parliament and councillors – have a more positive vision and a better argument to make, based our shared values of solidarity, co-operation and prosperity with our EU neighbours. It is time for the Labour party to start making it.
Jonathon Hawkes is leader of Dartford Labour group. He tweets at @CllrJonHawkes
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.