A LabourSay on Brexit strengthened the party’s single market and freedom of movement policy, writes Conor Pope
‘I think people will interpret membership of the single market as not respecting the referendum’, explained shadow chancellor John McDonnell, three days after the 2017 general election.
This was not a pivot: the manifesto had declared that ‘freedom of movement will end when we leave the European Union’. Free movement is one of the four pillars of single market membership. Without needing to spell it out, it means leaving the single market. McDonnell was just making explicit this manifesto stance.
As the results came in on election night, Progress chair Alison McGovern was already clear about the repercussions for Brexit. Theresa May had asked for a stronger hand to push harder for her vision of a Brexit deal, and the public had looked at her plans for Brexit and given her a weaker hand. The single market was back on the table, so long as Labour would argue for it.
The only problem was that Labour would not argue for it, despite polling showing 87 per cent of party members supporting the position.
Two weeks after the election, McGovern told Progress annual conference that ‘the best anti-austerity policy in the country today is remaining in the single market’. She urged the members in the room that day to ‘join the campaign to keep Britain in the single market’.
At that point, no such campaign existed to join. This was the founding of the Labour Campaign for the Single Market.
It is a drum we have not stopped banging since. The cover of September 2017 issue of Progress magazine declared that keeping Britain in the single market was ‘in Corbyn’s gift’. When Progress launched the Progressive Britain podcast last year, the first episode was on single market membership. Other issues of the magazine since have examined how ‘taking back control of our borders’ can be squared off with retaining free movement, and what the potential for trade is both inside and outside of the single market. We refused to avoid the reasons that the political establishment class in this country had readily accepted leaving the single market as an assumed reality of Brexit.
Thousands signed up to the campaign, including dozens of members of parliament, members of the European parliament, Welsh assembly members, Scottish parliamentarians and mayors. Even Greece’s former finance minister Yanis Varoufakis backed it.
Slowly, things began to change. In February this year, more than 80 senior Labour figures put their names to an open letter calling for the party to pledge single market membership. That week, Jeremy Corbyn and shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer shifted Labour’s position to remain in the customs union. It was a first victory, that accepted the single market in philosophy, if not action.
The LabourSay.EU campaign, launched by the centre-left candidates for the National Executive Committee, was also gaining steam, with an initial aim of getting Brexit on the agenda for Labour’s annual conference. 121 constituency Labour parties put forward Brexit motions that met the criteria to be discussed at conference, and the topic prevailed in the priorities ballot – voted on by trade unions and conference delegates, including those from the Momentum wing of the movement.
After a six-hour compositing meeting, the final text of the motion backed by conference supported ‘full participation in the single market’ and condemned the deal being pursued by the Conservative government as ‘a threat … to freedom of movement’. This clearly moved Labour’s position forward from simply ‘retaining the benefits of the single market’, while – in implicitly backing free movement – also reversing the only obstacle to single market membership set out in the 2017 manifesto.
A spokesperson for the party recently denied this amounted to a shift in policy – but that is to deny members of their power. The Labour Campaign for the Single Market has won, and it was Labour members who delivered it.
Conor Pope is deputy editor of Progress. You can sign up to support the campaign at LabourSay.EU
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