The strength of feeling in the Labour party forced a new policy position on the customs union, and we can do the same for the single market, argues Ian Murray
Thank the Lords.
You know our peers are doing something right when they have frustrated the Brexiteers so much that the Daily Mail screams: ‘It’s time to pull the plug on the Lords.’
Fifteen comfortable defeats for the government in the upper house have left Theresa May with yet another massive headache.
These were not just symbolic victories for those of us who oppose Brexit. Following one of the largest votes ever recorded in the House of Lords, the prime minister is now forced to hold a new vote on a customs union in the House of Commons. Former cabinet ministers in her own party were among the rebels.
And there will also be a vote on the United Kingdom remaining in the European Economic Area – the rule maker of the single market – as the result of another amendment that was passed by peers following a massive rebellion in both government and opposition parties.
Will the Commons ever get a vote on these Lords amendments? Who knows? While the government are in such disarray they will not bring them back and face certain defeat. ‘Kicking’ and ‘long grass’ springs to mind.
The Tories are hopelessly split on Britain’s post-Brexit relationship with Europe and there is growing unrest among Conservative ‘Remainers’.
Ten pro-European Conservative members of parliament signed an amendment that called on the UK to stay in a customs union, and others have spoken of closer trade ties with the EU. These are critical times and if we want to stay as a trading nation then we must do all we can to make the government see sense.
Then we have the fight in the cabinet. The prime minister backs a ‘customs partnership’ – the so-called hybrid model – which would see the UK collect European Union import tariffs on behalf of Brussels. ‘Magical thinking’ says the EU; ‘the only way to avoid a hard border with Ireland’, say some Tories; a ‘red line’, says Jacob Rees-Mogg.
And then there is ‘max-fac’ – no, not a new makeup brand, but ‘maximum facilitation’, to give it its Sunday name – which is based on technology and exemptions for small businesses with apparently ‘unobtrusive’ border checks. Another idea rejected out of hand by the EU. In fact, the EU ‘annihilated’ both options. So we have a cabinet fighting over two options that the EU will not subscribe to in any case. What is the phrase? While Rome burns …
At the time of writing, it remains unclear whether Boris Johnson or May will emerge victorious in this squabble around the cabinet table.
What is not in doubt is the fact that both ideas are nonsensical. It is frightening that we are governed by a party which has absolutely no clue how to deliver the promises it made to ‘Leave’ voters.
And what if they fall out with no deal? They paint this rosy picture of a comfy mattress that the UK will lightly fall on as if World Trade Organisation rules are some saviour. They are not, they are the worst of all worlds and they do not include the 80 per cent of the UK economy that is services. There is no comfortable fall back on the mattress. If we fall out on WTO rules the mattress will be a bed of nails with a barbed wire duvet. It is that stark.
The obvious solution to avoid such upheaval and prevent economic damage is to remain in the EU.
Staying in the single market and customs union is second best, and a compromise. Either way, what the Brexit voters were promised has vanished. That is why I am supporting the People’s Vote campaign on the final deal.
Already the UK economy has fallen from the top to the bottom of Europe’s growth league as the reality of Brexit starts to become clear. Choosing to lower the living standards of families throughout the country was not on the ballot paper. We may not have seen the worst of it yet but, remember, we have still to leave.
But if we are to leave the EU in March next year, then it is vital that we take the least-worst option.
The government repeats ad-nauseam the need for the UK to do new trade deals. Well, we already have 68 bilateral trade deals as a member of the EU. They want to rip them up and throw them away. Why?
Earlier this year, Jeremy Corbyn backed the UK being in a permanent customs union with the EU. While our party continues to use the oxymoron of a ‘jobs-first Brexit’, this was a positive step forward.
It is what members have been calling for, and shows that the leadership can still be forced to listen to the strength of feeling in the party. It is the common sense solution, after all.
While negotiations on a new UK-EU customs union will not be plain-sailing, Labour’s proposal currently offers the best trade solution post-Brexit. With support from Tory rebels, this a fight we can win.
But freedom of movement for goods is not enough by itself. Nearly 80 per cent of the UKs economy is services, not goods. That means that the customs union is not sufficient for the free flowing of trade in services. For that, we need the single market but the Labour leadership refuses to budge on a dogma that is built on reasons that do not exist.
And yes, it is correct for our party to be concerned about the fluidity of supply chains in the movement of car parts, microchips or cheese but it must also be about the movement of workers.
I want all EU citizens living in the UK to know they are welcome and their contribution to the fabric of our society and our economy is valued – and must continue.
That is why we need permanent UK membership of the single market – the agreement between the 28 EU member states and members of the EEA which allows the free movement of goods, services, money and people.
There have been ridiculous claims that pledges in our radical manifesto including nationalisation could not be implemented inside the single market. The renationalisation of the East Coast mainline – by the Tories – proves otherwise. Norway’s state owned railways reinforces this. Claims that we could not end austerity within the single market are also a fallacy – austerity is a political choice made by the Tories across the UK and by the Scottish National party in Scotland. Austerity is compounded by withdrawing from the single market.
Then there is the meaningless soundbite about securing ‘access to’ the single market. Apart from companies affected by sanctions, any business from any country in the world has ‘access to’ the single market. The policy seems to be that we come out of the single market in order to create a new single market between the EU and the UK that has the ‘exact same benefits’ and ‘recreates’ the single market. I do not understand it either.
When it comes to the Irish issue, the Good Friday agreement cannot be respected and there cannot be an open border unless Northern Ireland is in both the single market and customs union. The trading relationship between both countries must be the same otherwise you need a border of some description. It is obvious.
And there are claims that we would be a ‘rule taker’ rather than a ‘rule maker’. While the set-up would certainly not be as beneficial as remaining a full member of the EU, members of the single market such as Norway are consulted on and help draft EU laws around the table, and they can refer laws to their own parliaments and adapt them. They can even refuse to incorporate EU law.
Is formal autonomy over decision-making on standards really worth the risk to our economy of leaving the single market?
I agree with Trades Union Congress general secretary Frances O’Grady and the trade union movement that only the single market guarantees British workers’ hard-won rights.
When the Commons gets a vote on EEA membership, thanks to pressure from Labour lords, I will be voting in favour – to protect jobs and workers’ rights (as we were whipped to do last December).
I know I will be joined by dozens of colleagues from up and down the country. And together we know we will be joined by the Liberal Democrats, other opposition parties and Tory rebels. We can defeat the government – if the Labour frontbench wants to. As it stands, the only obstacle to a Commons victory is our own leadership.
Abstaining on this issue in the Commons, when so many livelihoods are at stake, should be unthinkable for the party that exists to represent workers. Just in case no one has noticed: the Labour party is not in government. We can only deal with what we have in front of us. What is in front of us are these Lords amendments, and not ‘what we would do if we were negotiating’. That means it is EEA and customs union or bust.
We may fail to persuade the shadow cabinet on this occasion. But we must not give up.
The strength of feeling in the party forced a new policy position on the customs union, and we can do the same for the single market.
Eighty-seven per cent of Labour members say Britain should stay in the single market. Eighty-two per cent support a people’s vote on the terms of the Brexit deal. It is Labour policy, after all – as decided by our party’s annual conference in 2016.
Members did not get their say at last year’s conference, and motions in favour of the single market were also quashed at this year’s Scottish Labour conference. In Liverpool this September, for the sake of the country, we cannot afford to be silenced.
The clock is ticking. But, by working together, progressives can help shape Labour party policy before it is too late.
We owe it to the people we represent to do everything we can to prevent a hard Brexit. In fact, should we not all be looking at Rees-Mogg, Johnson and Michael Gove and doing the opposite?
Our country needs you.
Ian Murray is member of parliament for Edinburgh South and co-chair of Scottish Labour for the Single Market. He tweets @IanMurrayMP
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