No, Labour is not committed to membership of the EEA

Some unions believe the party shifted its position at conference. It did nothing of the sort.

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Is Labour now committed to membership of the EEA? That’s the conclusion some on the left have belatedly reached today, citing the Brexit motion approved by conference last month.

Both the TSSA and Community unions, as well as Another Europe Is Possible, the left’s anti-Brexit campaign, say that it is. They tell the Independent that a line in the motion – which says the party should support “full participation in the single market” – represents a significant shift and binds the leadership to seeking EEA membership as a minimum.

Unfortunately for them, however, it isn’t, and it doesn’t. The wording is near identical to the unsuccessful Lords amendment to the EU Withdrawal Bill. That too called for participation rather than membership but was rejected by the leadership. Labour’s previous line demanded “full access to the single market” and much has been made of the semantic shift. But as far as Keir Starmer is concerned, it isn’t a shift at all. Sources close to him have long said they do not believe that there is such a thing as membership of the single market. They compare it to a rulebook, rather than a club.

By their logic, membership of the EEA is unnecessary. It is an answer to the question that they believe should not be asked. But equally important is the fact that, as far as the parliamentary Labour Party goes, it is politically indigestible.

Many MPs in seats where a majority voted to leave the EU believe freedom of movement must end, a sentiment that the party’s official line echoes in recognition of the fact that swathes of the PLP and sections of their electorates would not buy it. No matter how much blue sky thinking certain backbenchers do, there is no conceivable way that the UK would be allowed to stay in the EEA without accepting freedom of movement. It would mean rule-taking rather than rule-making to boot, a violation of party policy.

So if not the EEA, what does the wording of the motion actually mean in practice? Unfortunately for the likes of the TSSA and Community, for as long as Labour is in opposition, it means whatever the leadership wants it to mean. It’s arguable that the only thing that delivers what Labour is demanding of the government – “the exact same benefits” of the single market – is the single market itself and with it EEA or EFTA membership, with all of its baggage. But to that, the leadership says that it is not incumbent upon them to come up with an answer.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.