Labour’s position on the single market and the customs union remains confused. Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell’s latest claim that somehow the UK could enjoy the benefits of a single market without being a member has been described by Ian Murray MP as” disingenuous claptrap”. Murray added, in more measured tones: “The EU has made it clear that you can’t be in a single market with all the same benefits without participating in the single market. If you want all the same benefits you have to be in it.”
While UK Labour’s official position is to leave the single market and customs union after the two year transition period, but then have “a variant of single market” and be a member of “a customs union” Scottish Labour leader, Richard Leonard, now favours the UK staying in the current customs union beyond transition.
And last week nearly 50 Labour MPs defied Mr Corbyn to back an amendment to the Government’s EU Withdrawal Bill, calling for the UK to remain in the single market.
Labour’s ambiguous position is driven by two other factors – Corbyn’s personal position on Europe and the destiny of the collapsing UKIP vote.
While Corbyn claims to have voted to Remain in the 2017 referendum, his position has always been anti-market. Dragooned by his Labour and trade union colleagues to at least appear to be campaigning to Remain, the photo opportunity saw Corbyn give the impression of wanting to be elsewhere. And those close to Corbyn remain anti EU. Former MP, Katy Clark, now Corbyn’s Political Secretary, is of the view that leaving Europe is leaving a “capitalist club”. Which of course begs the question: “Which socialist club would we join”? Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua perhaps?
To be fair to Corbyn the electoral consequences of Labour being seen to be too positive about the EU provide some difficulties. In one of 2018’s first local council by-elections, in Bolton traditional Labour territory, the party lost the Hulton seat to the Conservatives. Why? Because the splintering UKIP vote largely went to the Tories; their vote increased by 16.7%, Labour’s by only 3% while UKIP’s fell by 18%.
But there are two sides to every coin. The majority of Labour party members and MPs are pro Europe with an Ipsos Mori survey revealing that 90% of Labour MP’s believe single market membership is compatible with Brexit. They want to maintain a positive relationship with Europe; if not as a member of the EU at least having a relationship similar to which Norway enjoys.
So will Corbyn put short term electoral advantage before the long term economic interests of the country? If the second round of negotiations deliver a deal that is perceived to lead to lower living standards and higher unemployment, will he change his position and vote against the negotiated agreement?
At some point Jeremy Corbyn will have to take a final position. Sitting on the fence is not a long term policy!
Please note these are the personal views of Keith Geddes