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Is Brexit really incompatible with the single market? The referendum campaigns revisited

Funnily enough, Brexiteers were much more vague in 2016. 

Jeremy Corbyn has told members of the parliamentary Labour party that the UK cannot stay in the single market after Brexit, the Guardian reports, causing frustration among pro-EU Labour MPs. 

“Labour Brexit fudge” has become so commonplace as a phrase that Tesco will soon be stocking it, but nevertheless the party’s tactical avoidance of Brexit will not last forever. 

In August 2017, shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer just gave it a wipe. Labour, he confirmed, would seek to remain inside the single market during a time-limited transition period. 

Responding in a series of tweets, Labour donor John Mills described Starmer's position as “incompatible” with Labour's manifesto, adding that it “would betray 4m Labour-supporting Leave voters”.

Yet a former Vote Leave staffer, Oliver Norgrove, had a different perspective. “We argue for things which are utterly achievable in the EEA and make no mention at all of leaving the single market,” he wrote, while urging the public to check the official campaign's aims. 

The EU referendum question itself - “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” - offers no answers. So what did the campaigns and key campaigners have to say about remaining in the single market?

Vote Leave

The official Brexit campaign infamously claimed that voting to leave the EU would “save £350m a week”. It also promised control of Britain's borders, controls of immigration, the freedom to strike trade deals, and to “make our own laws”. 

It stated: “There is a free trade zone stretching all the way from Iceland to the Russian border. We will still be part of it after we Vote Leave.” Daniel Hannan, a Tory MEP and one of the faces of Vote Leave, declared: “Absolutely nobody is talking about threatening our place in the single market.” Boris Johnson, now foreign secretary, declared in the aftermath of the vote that Britain would retain access to the single market. 

Verdict: This is the “having your cake and eating it” campaign. It's clear Vote Leave wanted to prioritise trade, but at the same time it would take a master negotiator to deliver the promises on slashing EU regulation and controlling immigration, while staying in the single market, since multiple EU leaders have said the four freedoms - freedom of trade, services, capital and movement - are indivisible.  


Although today Leave.EU is one of the most vocal opponents of staying in the single market, both Nigel Farage and Arron Banks, influential members of the unofficial Brexit campaign, talked up the "Norway option" and the European Economic Area. However, in February 2016, Farage said explicitly that he did not wish the UK to be part of the single market. Leave.EU's campaign messaging stressed controlling borders and immigration, and Farage argued that immigration was suppressing wages.  

Verdict: This was the "don't mention the market" campaign. Leave.EU clearly prioritised controlling immigration over access to the single market, but in the run up to the vote, it played down the implications of its stance. Talk about the Norway model also blurred the picture.

Stronger In

The official Remain campaign made its case almost exclusively on the economic benefits of remaining in the EU, including the freedom to trade, and the consequence of lower prices.

Its website stated: "Being in the single market means we have the freedom to work, travel and study in the EU, creating even more job opportunities for you and your family. If we left Europe, UK businesses would have to pay new tariffs, increasing the cost of trading."

Verdict: This was the "stay in the single market" campaign, and anyone who came across Remain's arguments could have little doubt about that. According to Stronger In, the flipside of being in the EU was clearly leaving the single market.

Another Europe Is Possible

The unofficial, left-wing Remain campaign, backed by several trade unions, was lukewarm about the single market. Its opening statement declared that "for all its potential, the EU as it’s currently constituted is run in the interests of multinational corporations for whom it represents a lucrative market". However, it argued that by staying in the EU, left-wingers had a better chance of reforming the system, and that the breakdown of borders would allow progressives to work across Europe. 

Verdict: This was the "solidarity" campaign, with little defence of the single market. 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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Labour’s renationalisation plans look nothing like the 1970s

The Corbynistas are examining models such as Robin Hood Energy in Nottingham, Oldham credit union and John Lewis. 

A community energy company in Nottingham, a credit union in Oldham and, yes, Britain's most popular purveyor of wine coolers. No, this is not another diatribe about about consumer rip-offs. Quite the opposite – this esoteric range of innovative companies represent just a few of those which have come to the attention of the Labour leadership as they plot how to turn the abstract of one of their most popular ideas into a living, neo-liberal-shattering reality.

I am talking about nationalisation – or, more broadly, public ownership, which was the subject of a special conference this month staged by a Labour Party which has pledged to take back control of energy, water, rail and mail.

The form of nationalisation being talked about today at the top of the Labour Party looks very different to the model of state-owned and state-run services that existed in the 1970s, and the accompanying memories of delayed trains, leaves on the line and British rail fruitcake that was as hard as stone.

In John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn’s conference on "alternative models of ownership", the three firms mentioned were Robin Hood Energy in Nottingham, Oldham credit union and, of course, John Lewis. Each represents a different model of public ownership – as, of course, does the straightforward takeover of the East Coast rail line by the Labour government when National Express handed back the franchise in 2009.

Robin Hood is the first not-for-profit energy company set up a by a local authority in 70 years. It was created by Nottingham city council and counts Corbyn himself among its customers. It embodies the "municipal socialism" which innovative local politicians are delivering in an age of austerity and its tariffs delivers annual bills of £1,000 or slightly less for a typical household.

Credit unions share many of the values of community companies, even though they operate in a different manner, and are owned entirely by their customers, who are all members. The credit union model has been championed by Labour MPs for decades. 

Since the financial crisis, credit unions have worked with local authorities, and their supporters see them as ethical alternatives to the scourge of payday loans. The Oldham credit union, highlighted by McDonnell in a speech to councillors in 2016, offers loans from £50 upwards, no set-up costs and typically charges interest of around £75 on a £250 loan repaid over 18 months.

Credit unions have been transformed from what was once seen as a "poor man's bank" to serious and tech-savvy lenders where profits are still returned to customers as dividends.

Then there is John Lewis. The "never-knowingly undersold" department store is owned by its 84,000 staff, or "partners". The Tories have long cooed over its pledge to be a "successful business powered by its people and principles" while Labour approves of its policy of doling out bonuses to ordinary staff, rather than just those at the top. Last year John Lewis awarded a partnership bonus of £89.4m to its staff, which trade website Employee Benefits judged as worth more than three weeks' pay per person (although still less than previous top-ups).

To those of us on the left, it is a painful irony that when John Lewis finally made an entry into politics himself – in the shape of former managing director Andy Street – it was to seize the Birmingham mayoralty ahead of Labour's Sion Simon last year. (John Lewis the company remains apolitical.)

Another model attracting interest is Transport for London, currently controlled by Labour mayor Sadiq Khan. TfL may be a unique structure, but nevertheless trains feature heavily in the thinking of shadow ministers, whether Corbynista or soft left. They know that rail represents their best chance of quick nationalisation with public support, and have begun to spell out how it could be delivered.

Yes, the rhetoric is blunt, promising to take back control of our lines, but the plan is far more gradual. Rather than risk the cost and litigation of passing a law to cancel existing franchises, Labour would ask the Department for Transport to simply bring routes back in-house as each of the private sector deals expires over the next decade.

If Corbyn were to be a single-term prime minister, then a public-owned rail system would be one of the legacies he craves.

His scathing verdict on the health of privatised industries is well known but this month he put the case for the opposite when he addressed the Conference on Alternative Models of Ownership. Profits extracted from public services have been used to "line the pockets of shareholders" he declared. Services are better run when they are controlled by customers and workers, he added. "It is those people not share price speculators who are the real experts."

It is telling, however, that Labour's radical election manifesto did not mention nationalisation once. The phrase "public ownership" is used 10 times though. Perhaps it is a sign that while the leadership may have dumped New Labour "spin", it is not averse to softening its rhetoric when necessary.

So don't look to the past when considering what nationalisation and taking back control of public services might mean if Corbyn made it to Downing Street. The economic models of the 1970s are no more likely to make a comeback then the culinary trends for Blue Nun and creme brûlée.

Instead, if you want to know what public ownership might look like, then cast your gaze to Nottingham, Oldham and dozens more community companies around our country.

Peter Edwards was press secretary to a shadow chancellor, editor of LabourList and a parliamentary candidate in 2015 and 2017.