Explaining Labour’s new Brexit policy 

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August 29, 2017 by Paul Goldsmith

At first it does look like a bit of a u-turn. After what has been reported to have been robust discussion at Shadow Cabinet, Keir Starmer, Labour’s Shadow Brexit Secretary, announced through an article in the Observer that Labour policy will be to retain Britain’s membership of the EU Single Market and Customs Union for a long transition period (some say four years but Starmer doesn’t put a concrete number on it) after the end of the Article 50 process. 

It looks like a bit of a u-turn because Labour’s 2017 manifesto said that Britain would leave the Single Market and the Customs Union. Furthermore, three Shadow Ministers were sacked in June for voting for Chuka Ummuna’s amendment to the Queen’s Speech which insisted on staying in the Single Market and Customs Union. So it seems a bit odd that now it is Labour policy. 

Except for those who have actually read the article rather than simply rushed out an immediate pre-prepared press release or tweet that was stored under ‘Labour commits to Single Market and Customs Union’ ready to be sent at a moment’s notice, this is not what Labour are doing. Of course, you wouldn’t know that reading Twitter, where Leave campaigners are shouting about Labour ‘frustrating democracy’ and Labour ‘abandoning their base’ (many of whom voted for Brexit).

Starter makes it clear in his article that the end point is not remaining in the Single Market or Customs Union. The point of the policy is that it is completely impossible for arrangements to be made between the UK and the EU that replace the Single Market and Customs Union within the two year Article 50 timescale. Labour’s view is, and has always been, that ‘no deal’ is not an option, as the cliff edge that would entail could cost many jobs among other problems. So they want to give businesses and consumers in this country some certainty for the next few years that time will be bought to get the ‘right’ policy for the UK. 

Theresa May and her ministers have conceded that it may take a two year transition period, but they want it to be over by the 2022 General Election. The trouble is, the Brexit process cannot just be melded into the UK’s normal political timescale. Extricating ourselves from the highly complex web of interdependency that EU membership entails in a manner that suits both sides could take many years. A decision to maintain existing arrangements whilst that is done is actually quite sensible.

The argument against this is that Leavers fear that a long transition period is a back door to remaining in the Single Market and the Customs Union. This is commonly known as ‘soft’ Brexit. If we stay in the Single Market but leave the EU we cannot have our own immigration policy nor make many of our own laws and regulations but have even less control over them as we won’t be at the table debating and discussing them. If we stay in the Customs Union we cannot make our own trade deals, but instead would have to accept the ones the EU makes, which take longer and again over which we would have no input anymore. This would arguably be a worse situation for the UK.

Except that it would make it far easier to go back into the EU should we choose to have a second referendum to decide whether to do so. Remaining in the Single Market and Customs Union would mean nothing much would change if we go back in. No wonder Leavers are concerned about this development.

Like every aspect of Brexit, there is no clear answer about what is the right thing to do. Too many people are boiling it down to simple certainties. Labour’s policy can be viewed in one way as a sensible grown-up decision to reduce uncertainty at the end of March 2019. To the accusation of ‘u-turn’ they can simply say that as the opposition party they don’t have to deliver their manifesto and have the luxury of constantly reviewing it, which is true. Close reading of Starmer’s article shows that this isn’t ‘frustrating democracy’ but might instead be an attempt to deliver the outcome of democracy in a less damaging way. 

But it could also be true, and the reactions of Remainers suggest it might be, that this will apply pressure to keep the UK in position of permanent suspense, waiting to get back in and correct the ‘mistake’ apparently made by 17.4 million people. I would hope not. 

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