19 June 2017

In a fortnight where the door seems to have been opened to new interpretations of Brexit, the Labour frontbench lacks a clear position on whether to leave the single market and end free movement of people. A new political landscape has emerged where it will be harder for the Conservatives to simply force through a Brexit of their design, and as such the Labour Party is likely to have a greater importance in the next two years.  While much focus has been paid to the divisions in the Conservative Party which have re-emerged since the shock election result, similar divisions and confusion are evident on the Labour front bench, indicative of how the election has not healed the discord which was evident in the Article 50 vote where a fifth of Labour MPs defied a three-line whip.

Labour’s increasing importance in Brexit is evidenced by calls from some prominent figures, including former Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper, for a cross-party approach to negotiations. This is unlikely as it is not in Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn’s interest to stabilise the May government or to take on responsibility for any political difficulties of Brexit, and as such it has been ruled out for now by Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer. Despite this, Labour will have greater influence in Parliament, as debates and select committees will form an important part of the process in a way that was not certain before the election.

The Labour manifesto was deliberately vague on Brexit and failed to declare an unambiguous position on the single market. One point of clarity – inserted into the final draft of the manifesto – was that “Freedom of movement will end when we leave the European Union.” Freedom of movement is of course intrinsically linked to membership of the single market, with the EU’s ‘no cherry picking’ position seeming to rule out any membership of the single market in which freedom of movement is restricted. However, since the election we have seen contradictions from key Labour figures.

Labour confusion

On Sunday, Keir Starmer refused to rule out staying in a reformed single market, having last week criticised the government for taking single market membership off the table. He also failed to give a clear position on whether Labour would accept some freedom of movement for increased access to the single market. Last Monday Shadow Trade Secretary Barry Gardiner left open the option of negotiating a reformed membership of the single market to allow restrictions on free movement.

In contrast, last Sunday Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell told Robert Peston unequivocally that single market membership was “not feasible”, and that “people will interpret membership of the single market as not respecting the referendum.” Earlier that morning, Jeremy Corbyn was asked by Andrew Marr whether Brexit would mean leaving the single market. He replied, “Absolutely.”

Notwithstanding the contradiction, Open Europe’s Stephen Booth argues that the idea that we could somehow reform the single market from outside the EU seems far-fetched. Continued single market membership will likely mean an EEA-style arrangement, which in its current form would entail accepting free movement, being subject to EU law without democratic involvement, and significant restrictions on our economic sovereignty. My colleague Aarti Shankar suggests that this is an unsuitable long term option, so to remain in the single market and fulfil the intention of Brexit would require a bespoke arrangement. This would inevitably be extremely complex to negotiate, and there is unlikely to be the necessary political will on the EU side.

Furthermore, last Wednesday Shadow Business Secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey suggested that the manifesto commitment to end freedom of movement could be reneged on to retain access to the single market:

I think we accept the fact that if we are going to have impediment-free access to the single market then there will have to be some element of free movement. I think we know that, the Conservative party know that.

To consider a position so starkly opposed to a manifesto commitment, so soon after the election, highlights the lack of consensus on the Labour front benches over what their red lines should be. There is an underlying divide between the more Eurosceptic leadership of Corbyn and McDonnell, and the largely pro-EU cabinet.

A new landscape

The election result has created certainty that Jeremy Corbyn will continue as leader, and has bought the support of the Blairite wing of the party, at least for now. A more united party is evidenced by the return of Owen Smith to the shadow cabinet less than a year after challenging Corbyn for the leadership. However, it is clear that this does not translate to a consensus on Brexit. This is understandable, given a wide range of views in the parliamentary party, with some members representing strongly remain-supporting constituencies. Labour had a strategy which worked for the whole country, attracting both Remain and Leave voters by campaigning on vague terms, such as their promise to end free movement but failing to commit to lowering net migration. The impossibility of reconciling the views of every part of their support into one cohesive strategy will cause a real challenge. They must retain unity, but have some tolerance of dissent from those MPs whose political survival in the next election relies on taking a position in opposition to Brexit. This dissent is manageable; having the frontbench contradicting each other on fundamental aspects of policy is more damaging.

Labour’s strategy will presumably be a balancing act between opposing the government as far as possible, and avoiding accusations of failing to respect the outcome of the referendum. Corbyn has told his MPs to be in “permanent campaign mode”, and this will likely dictate their opposition to Brexit to some degree, as they cannot go into the next election having voted against the will of the people. They must do this, while creating sufficient distance between their position and that of the government’s. It was noticeable that over the weekend journalists began asking Labour whether their criticisms of the Government simply amounted to complaints about tone rather than substance.

A strategy for government

So far, Labour have been keen to focus on outcomes rather than process; as Gardiner put it, “We wanted the benefits of the single market…how we get them is secondary.” This is an effective way to scrutinise the government, but now the debate has been reopened and the view Labour take may be important in shaping Brexit. As Labour is positioning itself as an alternative party of government, it is time to propose a specific Brexit plan. This includes a firm position on the single market and the customs union. Starmer said, “Sometimes I think that in the campaign we got far too down in the weeds of the difference between access, full access and membership. Let’s focus on what the real outcomes are.” The desired outcomes are obvious; it is time to debate the details of how to achieve them.

Labour’s manifesto was designed to make it possible to oppose any Brexit negotiated by Theresa May, by setting tests which were impossible to pass. It is clear being outside the single market and customs union is incompatible with “retaining the exact same benefits” of membership. These impossible tests are not a strategy for government.

Politics is very fast moving at the moment. But Labour will need to play its hand carefully in the upcoming votes on the Queen’s Speech, Great Repeal Bill, and the expected raft of Brexit-related bills. There’s every possibility that with no Conservative majority in Parliament, Labour may soon be fighting a general election as a genuine alternative party of government. Labour must therefore adapt to its new position, and design a Brexit strategy that could work in government as well as in opposition.