12 May 2017

Yesterday’s leak of the Labour manifesto has been revealing in terms of domestic policy, but it has revealed far less about their policy on Brexit. Perhaps indicative of the desire to focus campaigning on the NHS and education, the manifesto tells us little more than we learned from Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer’s speech last month. Indeed, a YouGov poll showed that more than half of Labour voters do not know the party’s position on Brexit, stemming from a referendum campaign in which Jeremy Corbyn’s position was a source of confusion. So what did the manifesto tell us?

‘No deal’

The policy which stands out is their promise to “reject ‘no deal’ as a viable [option] and negotiate transitional arrangements to avoid a cliff-edge.” What rejecting ‘no deal’ means in practice is unclear, as no guarantees can be made about what kind of deal the EU will offer. The only way fully to rule out the prospect of ‘no deal’ is to accept any deal offered at the end of the two year negotiating period. To do otherwise would either lead to no deal, or, given the two-year limit on Article 50 negotiations, would require extending the negotiating period (which requires unanimity in the European Council) or would at least need transitional arrangements.

World Trade Organisation rules state that transitional trade agreements must only last for a pre-mandated period of time, and may only exist as the precursor to a formal Free Trade Agreement (FTA) or a customs union. Without a roadmap for when this UK-EU FTA would be agreed, any trade liberalisation outlined in the transitional arrangements would have to be extended to all other WTO members under Most Favoured Nation anti-discrimination rules. Therefore, without an acceptable FTA in place, or the reasonable expectation of an FTA within a predictable timeframe, ‘no deal’ becomes difficult to rule out; especially if Jean-Claude Juncker’s assertion that “Brexit cannot be a success” is adopted as the EU negotiating position.

Clearly, the starkest difference between the Labour Party position and the Conservatives is the promise unilaterally to guarantee the rights of EU citizens currently in the UK on ‘day one’. It is the area in which they provide the clearest alternative vision to the Conservative plan. In other areas, the differences are less obvious. For example, little detail has been given on how the promised EU Rights and Protections Bill differs from the government’s Great Repeal Bill, which entrenches current EU law in UK law. The reason given for the new bill is to ensure all EU laws and protections are maintained, but this is achievable through the existing framework.

‘Truly meaningful vote’

While refusing to be drawn into offering a second referendum, Labour have declared that parliament will be granted a ‘truly meaningful vote’ on the final deal. The emphasis is interesting in the light of Jeremy Corbyn’s recent failure categorically to state that the UK would leave the EU regardless of the nature of the deal, with his aides having to clarify that the UK would definitely be leaving. It is therefore likely the vote will be on whether or not a trade deal is accepted. If it is a vote between accepting the deal and ‘no deal’, he has already ruled out ‘no deal’. If it is between accepting the deal and sending negotiators back to Brussels, the extremely tight Article 50 timeframe would be a barrier. Likewise, a vote towards the end of such an agreement would most likely be between accepting the deal and ‘no deal’, given the limited nature of any transitional agreement. Therefore, unless rejecting the deal means staying in or applying to rejoin the EU, it is hard to determine exactly how meaningful the vote will be.

‘The exact same benefits’

A promise the Labour Party has repeated is that they will retain the full benefits of the Single Market and the Customs Union. Indeed, this is one of the Brexit ‘tests’ Keir Starmer laid out, promising that, if it is not met, Labour will vote against the deal in Parliament. They have refused to state whether retaining benefits will be through a bespoke arrangement or continued membership. However, in keeping options open, it is difficult to determine their position. Without staying in the Single Market and the Customs Union, this requirement cannot be met. It is impossible to have a scenario where the UK is outside the Customs Union, but maintain the “exact same benefits.” Even if it were, it would be unacceptable in Brussels that a country could leave and retain the same benefits. If the UK is to take advantage of the opportunities which arise from leaving the EU, such as determining our own trade policy, it will have to leave the Customs Union. Therefore this test, impossible to fulfil, only adds to the confusion over Labour’s position. The Customs Union has been discussed in our paper, Nothing to declare: A plan for UK-EU trade outside the Customs Union.

‘Presumption of devolution’

Another interesting proposal is their ‘presumption of devolution’; that any powers repatriated from Brussels would be devolved “unless a compelling case for centralisation can be made.” Sadiq Khan has called for the European Regional Development Fund and European Social Fund programmes to be replaced by a London skills, employment, enterprise, environment and infrastructure fund, and presumably this will apply to devolved nations, new metro mayors and local authorities. It will be interesting to see what other powers would be devolved, and whether this will extend to devolved immigration policies to account for the difference in demand for and attitudes to immigrants.

Although it is still early in the campaign, it seems Labour Party policy on Brexit is vague and remains undeveloped since Keir Starmer announced it. While the manifesto leak was the subject of great interest regarding domestic policy, developments in their Brexit policy were notable for their absence. Much of what they have released centres on a softening of attitude and rhetoric towards the EU rather than concrete policy proposals.

The strategy to focus the campaign on subjects where they feel more comfortable is a result of Labour being structurally split; the typical metropolitan Labour support voted overwhelmingly to remain, whereas the traditional Northern and Midlands ‘Labour heartlands’ voted to leave. Many Labour MPs find themselves campaigning to hold seats in Eurosceptic areas, on a policy devised by a largely Europhile parliamentary party. The outcome is a policy which will not appeal to staunch remainers, such as the Liberal Democrat position, nor to those who want to see us leave. With Ipsos MORI reporting Brexit as the joint most important issue at this election, and Theresa May consistently leading polls in this area, failing to outline a coherent Brexit policy this election may prove costly.