Labour must end its ambiguous stance towards Brexit

  • The benefits of the single market are obvious and we will do British workers a disservice if we fail to acknowledge it

  • Chuka Umunna MP

“Crush the saboteurs” was the Daily Mail front page that greeted the announcement by Prime Minister Theresa May of a snap general election last April.

In that fateful statement she gave in Downing Street, she cited the failure of Westminster to back her plans for a hard, destructive Brexit as the justification for seeking the dissolution of parliament, despite the fact she had won every vote in the House of Commons on Brexit up to that point.

Dancing to the tune of the Brextremists in her party – led by the likes of Boris Johnson and Michael Gove in cabinet, and Jacob Rees-Mogg and others on the Tory backbenches – she sought to ensure the UK would no longer participate in the European Union’s single market and customs union: even though a number of non-EU states do so because of the huge economic benefits.

She went on to make clear that she would not sanction any observance of EU laws for whatever purpose; nor would she sanction a transition period, whereby we stay closely aligned with the EU framework for a period after Brexit, to smooth the landing afterwards for businesses.

She called the general election in pursuit of a much greater majority in the House of Commons to prosecute this prospectus – and humiliatingly lost her majority. What she was proposing was simply too much to stomach for too many people in the country.

Labour, led by Jeremy Corbyn, had the superior campaign and that was definitely a contributing factor to the outcome. But, in perhaps the most extensive examination of the reasons for the 2017 election result, the British Election Study found that, although Brexit did not dominate the discourse of the campaign, more than one in three people identified Brexit as the most important issue facing the country, compared to fewer than one in 10 who mentioned the NHS and one in 20 who identified the economy.

With regard to Labour’s performance, which against expectations saw us get 40 per cent of the vote, Professor Ed Fieldhouse and Dr Chris Prosser (part of the British Election Study team) were clear in their analysis: “Despite uncertainty over its position on the single market, Labour was seen as the best bet by those wanting to keep closer ties with Europe. Not only did it win over a large number of Remainers from the Conservatives, but also from the pro-EU Greens and Lib Dems.”

In the immediate aftermath and months following the election, the government sought to carry on as if, to borrow a phrase from May, “nothing has changed”. She sought to sideline parliament, refusing to disclose relevant information which would enable MPs to reach an informed view on how to vote on Brexit legislation. She even went as far as seeking to present parliament with a binary choice at the end of this year of accepting whatever deal she gets from Brussels, or crashing out with no deal at all.

This precipitated a rebellion on the government benches, and a defeat for the PM, back in December, which forced the government to give parliament a meaningful vote on the final Brexit deal (including giving MPs the ability to provide for a people’s vote on the Brexit deal).

Since December there has been a tangible shift in attitudes towards the economic structures of the EU, with more and more MPs coming to the view that we should seek to retain those benefits if the UK Brexits in March 2019. A clear majority in the House of Commons now believes we should continue to participate in the EU customs union, through which EU states come together and apply a common external tariff on non-EU countries’ goods; they also collectively negotiate trade deals with other blocks, believing that acting together they will have far more clout doing deals with the likes of India and China than by acting alone. The EU has offered the UK the opportunity to continue to participate in the customs union.

I chair the All-Party Parliamentary Group on EU Relations with Conservative MP Anna Soubry. Anna and I, along with others, have tabled amendments to the trade and customs bills to ensure the UK continues to participate in the customs union through a customs union with the EU. These proposals command majority support in the Commons, which is why ministers have stopped the passage of those bills because they know they currently face defeat.

The debate is now moving on to the EU’s single market. Non-EU countries like Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein continue to participate in the single market through their membership of the European Economic Area. The EEA provides for tariff-free trade between member countries, and a common framework of rules including employment rights, competition policy, consumer and environment protections.

The detailed arguments for and against this have been well rehearsed (I recommend the Open Britain pamphlet on the topic). Again, on the EEA there is growing support across the Commons. There have already been two Tory-sponsored debates in parliament led by MPs Stephen Hammond and Antoinette Sandbach, during which 11 Conservative MPs spoke supportively for the EEA.

So why the change of heart? With the forced publication of the government’s economic impact assessment of Brexit – showing the big hit to the economy if we leave both the customs union and single market – and increasing numbers of local businesses spelling out in detail to their MPs the implications for people’s jobs and firms, parliamentarians have chosen to put people’s livelihoods before any ideology.

It has not been lost on colleagues representing Labour seats that voted heavily to Leave that their areas stand to be hit hardest.

Up until now the Labour Party has adopted a position of constructive ambiguity in relation to the whole Brexit issue, choosing not to take a strong and clear position either in favour of the Tories’ hard Brexit or against it.

This is encapsulated perfectly in the most important of the six tests set out by the Labour frontbench against which Labour says it will judge the Brexit deal – the requirement that May’s Brexit deal delivers the exact same benefits as the single market and customs union. The EU institutions and other EU member states are clear that this is impossible unless the UK continues to be part of both. When Labour spokespeople are challenged on this, their response is that it is legitimate to set such a test given it was the Brexit Secretary David Davis who promised it.

Yet we cannot demand these exact same benefits with any credibility if we, as a party, are not prepared to commit to a policy which seeks to ensure the UK continues to participate in the customs union and single market – the only way the test can be met. We risk looking rather silly.

This perhaps explains why on 13 December 2017 Labour MPs were whipped to support the Heidi Alexander, co-chair of the Labour Campaign for the Single Market, amendment in support of the EEA to the EU (Withdrawal) Bill during its passage through the Commons. Unfortunately there were not enough Tory rebels for such an amendment to be passed on that occasion but, with more Tory MPs now supportive of the EEA, it could succeed during the later stages of the bill.

As you can imagine, May is desperate to avoid any amendment on the EEA returning from the Lords with the prospect of it being voted on in the Commons.

Step forward leading equalities campaigner and businessman Lord Waheed Alli, who has tabled cross-party amendments to the bill in the Lords to keep the UK in the EEA, alongside former Conservative minister Baroness Verma and the cross-bencher (and founder of Cobra Beer) Lord Bilimoria.

We do not know which way Labour peers will be whipped to vote but, so far, it appears that they will be whipped to abstain, or to vote against the EEA amendments, sabotaging this opportunity to ensure the UK continues to participate in the single market – which is overwhelmingly supported by Labour members and voters.

As Frances O’Grady, the TUC General Secretary, has said: “Staying in the single market currently looks like the best way to protect jobs, guarantee a level playing field for workers’ rights and safeguard the Good Friday Agreement.” Our supporters would be shocked to see our party collude with Theresa May in preventing the Lords from sending an EEA amendment to the Commons and standing in the way of the UK continuing to be part of this framework of rules – rules that protect people from the worst excesses of globalisation and unfettered capitalism.

So, we have well and truly reached the end of the road on constructive ambiguity. Does Labour stand with the hard right of the Tory Party, Ukip and Nigel Farage, or do we stand with those who say, if we are to leave the EU let us do so in the most socially just, less damaging way possible?

Our values are clear on the answer, as are our members, but will they be heeded in the next 48 hours?