Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Corbyn’s choice

The UK staying in the single market is in the gift of the Labour leader and his ‘new politics’

Jeremy Corbyn paints his political views in primary colours: he is against war, austerity and the private sector. He was a fervent critic of Neil Kinnock, John Smith, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. He voted against the Labour whip 617 times before he become leader, on 428 occasions against policies of the Labour government and its various manifesto commitments and was the most rebellious Labour member of parliament in the 2001 and 2005 parliaments. He won the party leadership by pinning his colours to the mast on every issue – bar Europe.

Before becoming a candidate for the leadership he was, to be fair, consistent. As a Haringey councillor he opposedentry to the European Economic Community – as it was then – and as a backbencher he opposed Maastricht and the constitutional convention. He did not simply oppose the ‘neoliberal’ parts of the project but the creation of the social market and the ability for nation states to leave the ‘super state’.

As soon as he became a leadership candidate, Corbyn suddenly developed subtlety on the issue of Europe, and the ability to compromise.

The mastery of Labour’s speedily written manifesto was that it rode both Brexit horses. Considering how the hard-left mocked and derided Ed Miliband’s glib ‘controls on immigration’ mug, the liberal-left totally ignores Corbyn’s pledge to ‘end freedom of movement’ and bring people over directly from the United Kingdom Independence party. Left with only one option to stop a hard Brexit – the Liberal Democrats were never a credible option only two years on from propping up David Cameron’s government, and even less so under the leadership of illiberal Tim Farron – young people turned out in their droves to wrestle back their future and vote Labour. Labour was the host of most chief ‘Remoaners’, promising to rip up the Brexit white paper, keep access to the single market, and projected onto ‘Leave’ -sympathetic Corbyn a sense that, when the opportunity presents itself, he would keep Britain in the world’s largest social market, if not stop Brexit altogether.

This issue of Progress magazine examines whether retaining Britain’s membership of the single market really is an option, and if Labour can be the key to making it happen. We already know it is desirable. As Alison McGovern said
in her keynote speech at Progress annual conference in June,‘the best anti-austerity policy in this country today is remaining in the single market’. Roger Liddle and Rupa Huq argue that single market membership is about ‘morals, not money’. It is a value statement that Britain should live by and the United Kingdom’s best response to the ‘race to bottom’ taking place throughout the capitalist world. But is it actually an option open to the 2017 parliament?
Former government chief whip Hilary Armstrong believes it is possible but ‘far from easy’. It will require a ‘more subtle approach to politics’, something ‘beyond the normal noise of political parties’.Those who wanted to support Chuka Umunna’s amendment to the Queen’s speech in July will need to be ‘let off the leash’ from here on in, she argues. The key thing is ‘it is in Corbyn’s gift’ and, if done correctly, would show the ‘new politics’ he promised at its best.

Mark Stuart comes to a similar conclusion, writing that ‘at the moment, the parliamentary arithmetic simply is not there. Umunna’s recent amendment to the Queen’s speech only attracted the support of around 100 MPs … while Andrew Adonis’s amendment suffered a similarly modest level of support in the House of Lords. But were the Labour frontbench not to actively whip against it, that could change.’

But the voters wanted a new settlement on migration, and if even Corbyn and the Bennite left can accept that, should modernisers in Labour not do the same? Catherine Barnard of the Univeristy of Cambridge examines what measures exist to ‘take back control’ of the borders within EU law and the single market. She argues that members states and European Economic Area countries can honour free movement of labour and remove the sense of ‘free for all’. It is always worth starting with the facts.‘It it is not true’ she asserts,‘that EU nationals have an unfettered right to move to the UK and live here … about 5,000 EU citizens are denied entry to the UK or are deported each year.’ Belgium officiously enforce their right to remove migrants from other member states who are not in, or looking for, work. As Barnard says,‘there are no rules of the EU or the single market that prevents member states outside Schengen from counting people in and out at the border – Britain did this as a member state before Michael Howard abolished them in 1995; nor identity cards – most EU states have them’.

Together, this would amount to a substantive change from the status quo and seem likely to be the minimum self regulations Brexit Britain will need. So why not implement free movement Belgian-style, introduce border checks and identity cards and attempt to remain in the single market? The public would get the control and the prosperity they were looking for in one go.

Does all this mean Corbyn needs to lose his subtlety on Europe? Not necessarily.There is a balance to be struck: If Corbyn puts the Labour frontbench and whole party behind keeping the UK in the single market and customs union
it could scare off much-needed Tory MPs. If he continues to whip against there will not be enough available votes in parliament to win the position. But he has to be minded to lead Labour in this way.

It is difficult for him personally. His comrades of old are Eurosceptic, if not full-on ‘Lexit’ – the ‘leftwing exit’ brigade. What would Corbyn’s hero Tony Benn think if his protégé kept the UK in the single market or stopped Brexit? But the crowd at Glastonbury that seemed to personify the 2017 ‘Corbyn surge’ may not just fall out of love with him if he does not act in their interests, they may never forgive the Momentum-left. The choice is Corbyn’s.


This article is part of a series of pieces for the September 2017 edition of Progress magazine on the United Kingdom’s membership of the single market being ‘In Corbyn’s gift‘. Please check out the other pieces now and support the Labour campaign for the Single Market while you are at it

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1 comment

  • Staying in the Single Market and the Customs Union during the transition period is the merest trifle compared to staying in them forever, as advocated by Theresa May and Peter Hitchens. Single Market membership is absolutely incompatible with key points of this year’s Labour’s manifesto. So a Corbyn Government would have to leave in the end. At the end of the transition period, in fact.

    Whereas a May or other Conservative Government would never have any reason to do so. Everything about it suits them down to the ground. By the end of 2019, it will have required even the privatisation of the French and German railways, the public ownership of which is cited by the illiterate as some sort of riposte to the fact that the EU forbids the renationalisation of anything that has ever been privatised, including the British railways.

    Today, the Labour Party stated the obvious: that, in accordance with the clearly expressed views and the obvious interests of the Labour heartlands that delivered the Leave vote, a Labour Government will eventually withdraw from the Single Market and from the Customs Union. But the Conservative Party has never given any such assurance, and it never will. Why should it? Its heartlands mostly voted Remain in what was, 33 years late, the Labour victory of 1983, when the areas that had been mostly badly damaged by all Governments since that point finally got their well-deserved revenge.

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