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What would Labour really do about Brexit?

June 10th, 2018

A few things are obvious to all but the most partisan:

  1. The Government is not conducting the negotiations well, because there is no clear majority within either Parliament or the country at large for any objectives.
  2. The EU might try to accommodate Britain if we did have clear objectives, but in their absence they default to something as close to fudge and little change as possible.
  3. The Opposition has no clear policy either. We don’t especially need to, though the effect is almost zero media coverage, since we have little to say about the issue of the moment except that the Government is making a hash of it.

Perhaps this will all be resolved by 2022 and the election will be fought on other issues. But what if the Government collapses and Labour forms a government before Brexit is set in stone? It’s by no means impossible – suppose Parliament votes down a Brexit fudge, there’s a Tory leadership election and they tear themselves apart? Suppose a few by-elections go horribly wrong (for legal reasons I won’t discuss one possible one in the near future). Suppose a new Tory leader calls a snap election and loses? What would Labour actually do?

Labour has several fault lines that make it hard. The majority of the PLP and members are very pro-EU and don’t much care about immigration. Many MPs are aware that lots of their supporters do care about it. Corbynites generally don’t care much either about EU membership or about immigration. And the underlying resentments of party division are still there. Europhiles are irritated with Corbyn partly because he’s not a Europhile, but also because he’s Corbyn. Corbynites are irritated with super-Europhiles partly because they see them as unhelpful to the exciting remodelled party.

But if Labour has formed a Government these tensions will recede for a while – hell, everyone will say, we’ve actually bloody won, this is not the moment to squabble. And some aspects of dealing with Brussels will be easier for us. Virtually nobody in Labour dislikes or fears the EU: we divide on whether we think it’s wonderful or whether we merely think it’s not too bad but needs improvement. And while we need to cover our flank on immigration, the fact that we basically think it’s no big deal means the heat goes out of it.

Nor are we dependent on the DUP, and if a solution drifts towards a united Ireland, we so do not have a problem with that (and nor do most of our voters, however much they voted Leave). Nor are we fanatical about establishing our own regulations on everything, or even having a major say in details – who cares what the rules are on the size of milk cartons, so long as we have some common rules? Certainly not industry – they want a well-defined consistent environment, not difference for the sake of it.

So Brussels will be dealing with people who like them and don’t have hang-ups about some current key issues. The mood music will be much better, and Brussels will want to make the sudden rush of rational friendliness work.

But there are still objective problems. We can’t sign up to unlimited free movement or a chunk of our voters will walk away. We don’t want to sign up to any deal that prevents us nationalising rail and utilities and we’re wary of anything that might force us into hands-off government with the private sector free to do what it likes.

So what might a Corbyn government sign up to? Something like this, I suggest.

  1. A customs union
  2. A deal on movement that makes it easy for qualified people to move in and out, but allows limits both ways.
  3. Willingness to abide by standards and regulations, with disputes arbitrated by the ECJ.
  4. Ulster remaining inside the single market.

Ulster Unionists will hate it, but so what. More practically, there will be problems for firms trading with Ulster unless they effectively accept single market rules as well. In effect the single market will exert influence into Great Britain as well, but without dictating the overall political structure. We don’t get a trade deal with the US, but an acceptable deal with Trump is likely to be elusive anyway.

Overall, we get to be a bit different in areas that matter to Labour, but we stay largely in the EU orbit where geography naturally places us. Leavers will get some immigration limits and the formal exit. Remainers will see us still close to the EU and perhaps able to rejoin one day. Industry will have consistent rules. Is it an ideal outcome? No, but it’s a reasonably civilised way out of where we are now, and it preserves broad national interest, party unity and amiable relations with the Continent. There are much worse places to be.

Nick Palmer

Nick Palmer was the Labour MP for Broxtowe from 1997 to 2010 and a longstanding contributor on PB