Labour's Brexit policy is getting lost in translation

Labour politicians can agree on what words to say - but they disagree on the meaning. 

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As far as Brexit goes, Labour agrees on the words and disagrees on the meaning. The party’s position is for a Brexit deal that puts “jobs first” and secures “the exact same benefits” as the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union has.

That was the position articulated by Diane Abbott, the shadow home secretary, Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary, and John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, in a series of interventions designed to clarify the party’s position after both Jeremy Corbyn and Barry Gardiner, the shadow international trade secretary, both ruled out continuing membership of the single market and the customs union.

The advantage that Labour’s line has is that it unites the parliamentary Labour party, the membership, the trade unions and the leadership. The difficulty comes when you ask what the words mean.

For the bulk of the trade unions, the members and a large minority in the parliamentary party, “jobs-first” and the “exact same benefits” means the exact same arrangement: a Brexit that takes Britain out of the political structure of the European Union but retains the United Kingdom’s membership of the single market and the customs union. Not all of this group would agree that the only real way to have a “jobs-first  Brexit” is not to have one but they wouldn’t disagree all that strongly, either.

For a minority in the party in the country and the labour movement, and a narrow majority of the parliamentary party, “jobs-first” and “the exact same benefits” comes with a fairly hefty caveat – without the free movement of labour and/or the rules of the European Court of Justice, both of which rule out continuing membership of the single market or the customs union and guarantee both fewer benefits and job losses.

(People often speak of this group being represented by Labour MPs “from the North”: in fact the biggest and most vocal MPs advocating for this approach have seats in the Midlands and Yorkshire. Some of Labour’s North-West MPs are planning an intervention with Keir Starmer, who they feel is unfairly using their region as an excuse to beat back complaints from Labour’s London MPs.)

Among the minority of that majority in the parliamentary Labour party, “jobs first” means a radical programme of public investment and state aid that, they believe would lead to the creation of new better jobs and a rebalanced economy. The agenda of Labour’s pro-single market MPs and trade unions is, first and foremost, to defend existing jobs.

Both opinions are well-represented in Jeremy Corbyn’s inner circle. And although the leader himself is a Eurosceptic of long standing who instinctively favours a more drastic exit, it is fairly far down his list of priorities, according to those who know him well. Pro-single market trade unions feel that this is an area where they might be listened to.

What the leader’s office agrees on is the need to avoid culpability. Their view is that the Brexit talks, both in their timing and the unrealistic expectations the public have for the outcome, are a Conservative problem and that Labour must avoid at all costs sharing the blame for a bad Brexit deal. (The leader’s allies often talk about the fallout from Britain’s exit from the exchange rate mechanism and the global financial crisis, when neither Tony Blair nor David Cameron were blamed for the failures of policies they had supported in Opposition.)

And that might be the biggest Brexit difficulty. Conservative Remainers will break away if they think they can force government concessions – they won’t rebel if they fear their votes will be cancelled out by Labour Brexiteers. But Labour MPs in leave seats are in the same situation. And that shared paralysis is probably the biggest barrier to a softer Brexit. 

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics. He also co-hosts the New Statesman podcast.

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