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Corbyn’s Brexit plan betrays younger voters – and they won’t forgive him

  • The spirit of Labour’s conference policy was that if we couldn’t get an election, Labour would commit to referring this issue back to the people.

  • Chuka Umunna MP

As the Brexit negotiations stagger on, a large swathe of Labour voters will be bitterly disappointed this week by the party leadership. In particular, younger voters who flocked to the party in 2017 in the expectation that the party would fight this Tory disaster will feel they have been sold down the river. Worse still, many think Labour is complicit.

Today, Richard Brooks, one of the co-founders of anti-Brexit youth group, For our Future’s Sake, spelt out how young Labour voters feel: “The Liberal Democrats went onto campuses and promised young people to not increase tuition fees. When they trebled them, only months later, young people and students mobilised – and in 2015 the Liberal Democrats were all but wiped out. The Labour Party now has the same existential threat before it. Does it enable a Tory Brexit, which will disproportionately harm young and working class people, or does Labour follow the wishes of hundreds of thousands of members like me, and support a People’s Vote.” He is absolutely right.

In a letter to Theresa May last night, Jeremy Corbyn said he would help facilitate Brexit and support her deal if May meets five key tests. One of Labour’s original tests, which demanded the exact same economic benefits outside the EU as we have within it, has been dropped. It was never realistic – at least he has realised this much. There was also the mantra that Labour would seek a “jobs first” Brexit. But Brexit, in the terms that the British people voted for originally, is impossible to deliver and there is no point pretending that anything short of keeping the current deal as an EU member is going to be good for the economy. In fact it will be the opposite, especially for jobs.

Whether May meets these five tests or not, they are not credible, nor do they take us any closer to a Final Say on the deal. Let’s go through them briefly.

“A permanent and comprehensive UK-wide customs union” with “a UK say on future EU trade deals” is the first demand. You cannot have a say on EU trade policy because EU treaties grant the EU sole competence over its common commercial policy. Seeking to participate in a customs union and expecting influence and a say on trade deals is not on the table – just ask Turkey which participates in the customs union but has no say over trade deals.

Second, Labour seeks “close alignment with the single market” which should be “underpinned by shared institutions and obligations”. This is a weakening of the Labour Party conference motion which talked about “full participation in the single market”, something which is only possible if you continue to participate in the single market through membership of the European Economic Area, which Keir Starmer, the Shadow Brexit Secretary, made very clear in the House of Commons last July that the Labour front bench was opposed to.

Third, the letter demands a “dynamic alignment on rights and protections so that UK standards keep pace with evolving standards across Europe as a minimum”. How on earth can you expect that from a Conservative prime minister when she, a member of cabinet for the last eight years, has sponsored the weakening of unfair dismissal protections, imposed employment tribunal fees which were ruled unlawful by the Supreme Court and overseen the watering down of the statutory remit of the Equality and Human Rights Commission?

Finally, the fourth and fifth points ask for clear commitments on participation in EU agencies and funding programmes, as well as unambiguous agreements on the details of future security arrangements. The truth is that everything in the political declaration is an aspiration – all of it is ambiguous, whether on security arrangements or otherwise, because it is not binding and subject to a future trading agreement being signed off in several years’ time. The prime minister is unlikely still to be in place when the future trading arrangement is finalised, and neither will the main EU leaders. Any promises involving these people, therefore, aren’t worth the paper they’re written on, as others will be in charge when the time comes.

In short, these tests are nonsense and Labour’s policy is all over the place. 

Above all, the letter makes no mention of referring this back to the people. The spirit of Labour’s conference policy was that if we couldn’t get an election, Labour would commit to referring this issue back to the people. 

The leader and those around him have made it is clear they have no interest in going there at all. He has also tacitly given a green light to those who not only won’t support a people’s vote but are also happy to thwart the House of Commons’ ability to stop the UK crashing out of the EU without a deal in 50 days. That is the harsh reality of what we have learned these last couple of weeks and the party won’t be forgiven by the next generation.