Corbyn’s speech showed movement on the customs union – we must push him to go further, argues Francis Grove-White
Many pro-Europeans have long hoped that Jeremy Corbyn is playing a long and inscrutable game, the final move of which will involve him revealing himself to be a pro-European convert and stymying Brexit. To others, trusting Corbyn to change his long-held views and come up trumps just because many of his supporters want him to is a reckless gamble. So, his every utterance on Brexit –though they are few and far between – are pored over for clues.
Both sides of this pro-European debate could take yesterday’s speech as support for their case. Corbyn’s shift on the customs union was certainly welcome and necessary. But if Labour is serious about ‘putting jobs and the economy first’ and preventing a hard border in Northern Ireland, it will not be sufficient. The only way to maintain ‘the benefits’ of both the customs union and the single market, as Labour’s 2017 manifesto promised, is to remain a member of both.
For a party that was central to securing the Good Friday agreement; that wants to protect and increase funding for public services; and that is wholly opposed to the idea of lowering our standards in order to secure trade deals with the United States and others – committing to staying in the customs union should have been a no-brainer.
As well as putting Labour on the side of business and manufacturing, and in the only sensible place when it comes to Northern Ireland, it also puts clear water between them and the government ahead of key votes in the Commons on the trade and customs bills.
Yet what sounds like a easy decision has only been arrived at more than 19 months since the referendum. Those who helped win the debate in the shadow cabinet should be applauded for their perseverance.
But this cannot be the end of the debate. Unless the argument is also made and won on the single market – protecting the economy, maintaining frictionless trade and retaining an invisible border in Ireland will remain little more than lofty ambitions.
Yet here Corbyn’s speech gave cause for concern. His insistence on seeking exemptions from EU state aid and procurement rules, despite their centrality to the EU’s negotiating mandate, would leave us outside the single market and risks leading to a chaotic no deal Brexit.
It has been repeatedly shown that there is nothing within the existing single market rules that would prevent a Labour government from implementing the policies in its 2017 manifesto. And we know that Britain, like other European countries, can have an active industrial strategy if the government of the day so wishes.
And, crucially, our EU partners could not have been clearer that remaining aligned in areas where it suits us, while having the freedom to diverge in areas where we wish to gain a competitive advantage, is for quite obvious reasons, a non-starter. The government refuses to accept this, but they will soon be forced to. The Labour leadership would do well to face up to this reality sooner rather than later.
A reality check is also needed when it comes to the cost of Brexit. Corbyn’s promise that ‘funds returned from Brussels after Brexit’ will be ‘invested in our public services’ is a puzzling one, given that Brexit has already weakened the economy to the tune of £200m a week since the referendum, while the government’s leaked impact analysis has shown that all Brexit outcomes will severely harm our trade with Europe.
As ever with Corbyn’s interventions on Brexit, there was enough ambiguity to reassure Leave voters while also giving hope to even the most ardent of Remainers.
His insistence that Labour ‘will not support any Tory deal that would do lasting damage to jobs, rights and living standards’ is the clearest indication yet that Labour will not support the deal the government comes back with, whatever it looks like. What this will mean in practice remains to be seen, but Labour is right not to rule anything out at this stage.
Article 50 may have been triggered nearly a year ago, but it is not irreversible. As the government’s promises continue to collapse under the weight of their own contradictions, everyone – including Jeremy Corbyn – has the right to keep an open mind about whether Brexit is the right path for our country.
Francis Grove-White is deputy director of Open Britain. He tweets @f_grovewhite
Photo: Richard Gardner
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