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10 January 2017

Jeremy Corbyn defuses one Brexit battle – and sows the seeds for another

The Labour leader played down his comments on free movement. But there's more than one kind of hard Brexit. 

By Julia Rampen

On Monday evening, journalists were briefed about a major Brexit speech by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. Labour, he was to say, was “not wedded” to free movement. Then he added that the UK could not afford to “lose full access to the European markets”. 

By the morning, though, Corbyn was trying to dampen down the excitement. He was, he stressed, not saying immigration controls were more important than access to European markets. 

Asked if he would rule out work permits for EU citizens, he said: “Nothing is ruled out at this stage but I want us to look at the access to those markets.”

If Corbyn wasn’t going to give immigration sceptics what they wanted, he had a different kind of populist fruit to offer. 

Speaking on Tuesday in Peterborough, he  pledged to make business fairer, from scolding “fat cats” who had already out-earned ordinary workers, to cracking down on agencies that exclusively recruit low-paid workers from abroad.

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He also once again demanded an end to EU state aid rules, which “Tory governments have hidden behind”. (Incidentally, former Chancellor and soft Brexit campaigner George Osborne said he liked state aid rules for exactly these reasons). 

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On high pay, Corbyn avoided his morning musings on the benefits of a maximum wage law, but proposed a 20:1 pay ratio for any company awarded a government contract. In essence, if the lowest-paid worker earned the minimum wage, a boss could earn nearly £350,000. 

These policies are not all new – indeed, David Cameron pioneered the idea of public sector pay ratios. The idea of a government prepared to bail out its steel industry may not go down so badly in de-industrialised Brexitland. 

But such rhetoric still has the power to undermine Labour’s relations with those hoping for a soft Brexit, whether for economic or political reasons. After all, freedom of movement may be sacrosanct, but the ban on state aid is an EU rule too. Refusing to budge on this too could point the way to a harder Brexit.