Labour is clear: Brexit would be better with single market membership

  • To sacrifice membership in negotiations, as the Conservatives have promised, jeopardises jobs and does little to address voters’ concerns over immigration.

  • Chuka Umunna MP

Since the election result became known, there has been some debate about Labour’s approach to Brexit, especially in relation to our membership of the single market.

All of us will want to take notice of the message delivered by the British people last week. When the prime minister called the snap election, she said that the country was united behind her Tory government’s vision of Brexit, but it was not. The result on 9 June showed how patronising, complacent and simply wrong that analysis was. If the public has said anything, it is that it does not trust this government to deliver Brexit, and it fears the extreme and chaotic plan outlined by ministers.

While Labour did not win the election, we made a big, important step along the path to office – the ultimate way to make our values real. We benefited from the anger of the silent millions of remain voters who felt ignored by the Tories. Jeremy Corbyn tapped into this, and young people who had been politically activated by, and then outvoted in, the referendum last year flocked to Labour’s message of hope (notably the turnout of young voters in that referendum was higher than on 8 June). But many middle-aged voters were drawn to us – whether they voted leave or remain – disgusted that the government had disregarded their fears and concerns, not only about Brexit but many domestic policies, too, such as the dementia tax.

The hard Tory Brexit rejected by the electorate would wrench Britain from the single market and customs union. In their place, the government hopes to negotiate an agreement with the EU that would deliver the “exact same benefits” as single market membership. At its most extreme, the government has said that, were such a deal to be unachievable, Britain should quit the European Union with no agreement whatsoever.

Jeremy and our Labour team are quite right to prioritise a “jobs-first” Brexit, as opposed to the Tory approach of sacrificing our economy on the altar of lower immigration. But there is a discussion ongoing as to how we would achieve these aims if we took government during the Brexit negotiations.

The debate within our party on this does not come close to matching the clan warfare within the Tory party. I doubt whether Ruth Davidson and Steve Baker can bear to be in the same room together, let alone find common ground over Brexit. However, there are different nuances – I put it no more strongly than that – among Labour folk.

In the past few days, John McDonnell has said he does not think single market membership is “feasible”, an approach Emily Thornberry agreed with. But Barry Gardiner has raised the prospect of “reformed membership of the single market and customs union”, and Keir Starmer has said Labour should keep such an option on the table.

The key point to make is that absolutely nobody here is arguing that the single market and customs union are bad things – so this debate does not threaten our unity. Our affiliated trades unions are strongly supportive of both, given their importance to jobs and workers’ rights. From John to Keir, we all agree that single market membership, or at least a deal that gives us the exact same benefits, is the best economic option for Britain. The argument in Labour around full membership of the single market is about whether it can be squared with delivering the desire of many of our voters to gain greater control over immigration. This is a proper concern – Labour must stand for those who voted leave every bit as much as we represent those who voted remain.

Leaving the single market, making communities poorer and more alienated, is not the way to deal with public concerns about immigration, most of which comes from outside the EU. In any event, free movement is not unconditional – you can already be required to leave our country after three months if you don’t have a job, but governments have chosen not to do this.

Equally, membership of the single market does not mean totally uncontrolled immigration from the European Union. Within the European treaties, restrictions on free movement are explicitly allowed for reasons of “public policy, public security or public health”. So Liechtenstein, which is outside the EU but in the single market, is allowed to impose quotas on EU migrants. Emmanuel Macron’s team have floated the idea of a “continental partnership” between Britain and the EU that would allow us to restrict free movement. My point is: there is scope for a Labour government to explore, with goodwill and in the spirit of compromise, how single-market membership could be reconciled with greater controls over immigration. What we absolutely must not do is end this journey before it begins by unilaterally taking the single market off the table as the Tories have done, jeopardising jobs and livelihoods; we should at least seek to try to stay members of the single market and to gain greater control over EU/UK immigration.

But there is a bigger issue at stake here. What does Labour hope to achieve in power? A country for the many not the few, which cares for the poorest and most vulnerable, reduces inequality in all its forms, energises opportunity, and delivers world-class public services. This necessitates ending the damaging and dangerous austerity that has beset our country for seven long years. This goal cannot be met if our economy and public finances are hit by withdrawal from the single market with the massive loss of revenue to the Exchequer that would entail. If we don’t achieve these aims and this central goal, we will drastically disappoint the expectations placed upon us by millions of voters – particularly new, younger voters – who chose Labour last Thursday. So a Brexit that puts jobs first and delivers for the many not the few should start by trying to square the single-market conundrum in the Brexit negotiations. I am confident that we, Labour, can do it.