The Labour leadership's preferred Brexit model is EEA membership. Why not say so?

Jeremy Corbyn has led from behind on the issue — and boxed himself into a tricky corner as a result.

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Labour Party conference has voted unanimously for a motion that would, in addition to a series of measures that would greatly increase the humane and compassionate treatment of people coming through the British immigration system, prioritise the continuation of the free movement of people, extend the voting rights enjoyed by Commonwealth citizens to EU citizens, and  seek to deepen and extend the free movement of people beyond the bill.

There’s a lot to like about the motion: I don’t think it’s a coincidence that on essentially every measure — integration, levels of intermarriage, tolerance for different religions, lifestyles, a widespread acceptance of the idea that you can be Hindu and Welsh and British, or Jewish and Scottish and British — the United Kingdom is one of the most successful multiracial democracies in the world and has a pretty generous attitude to voting rights. It makes sense to extend this to European citizens, whether we remain in the EU or those with settled status. 

And it rightly acknowledges that while you can, at the margin, have a more humane approach to immigration and processing, the only way you can eradicate those cruelties is if you eradicate borders: there is always a measure of cruelty, family separation and other horrors, though you can of course reduce that while maintaining closed borders.

In addition to all of that, it has important implications for Labour’s Brexit approach more generally. Unlike the motion to abolish private schools, which as Patrick explains in greater detail, the leadership intends to follow only partially, I’m told that the Labour leadership intends to adopt this essentially as written.

Equally importantly, it emboldens Labour’s pro-Europeans to vote down any EU-UK trade deal that does not, at the least, maintain the free movement of people and as a knock-on consequence, membership of the single market. That’s an important and neglected part of Labour’s internal debate over Brexit: there is no particularly large caucus within the Labour Party which views the presence of a British Commissioner around the high table of the European Commission as an issue of vital importance — there is a majority view that the preservation of free movement rights are.  

What does that mean for Jeremy Corbyn’s Brexit approach, now endorsed by Labour conference, of seeking a Brexit deal of his own before putting it to a public vote? Well, it means that it will look a lot like the preferred private end state of many senior movers and shakers in Corbyn’s inner circle: British membership of the European Economic Area with a customs union on top.

Seen from the leader’s office, EEA membership has a number of political benefits: it regains a significant level of regulatory freedom from the European Court of Justice, but maintains free movement — the only part of EU membership to inspire near-universal support among those with Corbyn’s ear.  Equally importantly, while a British EEA-style relationship would require some complex negotiations — the UK’s far larger financial services sector would need a greater degree of integration and some stronger shared institutions than those of the EEA nations — it provides an essentially off-the-shelf model of life outside the European Union but within Europe, which a Corbyn government could very quickly adopt, freeing up its energy and time for its ambitious broader programme.

A “Norway Plus” end state has been the direction that Corbyn’s close allies have steered people towards when asked what the Labour leader’s thinking is and when Corbyn has risked political capital to come out for a Brexit end state it has consistently been in favour of a Norway-type relationship.

But the Labour leadership has preferred to lead from behind on the issue, whether through quietly supporting and facilitating the meetings of the group of Labour MPs seeking to take the United Kingdom into the EEA, but providing little to no public cover, or in accepting this motion — which passed unanimously — without making a big and explicit public argument for it.

That means that the Labour leadership has triangulated itself into a position where it now de facto supports a referendum between staying in the European Union and heading into the European Economic Area, in which EU citizens can vote: a choice that will be portrayed by much of the press as a decision between no Brexit and no Brexit, and where the decision to enfranchise Europeans living in the UK will be attacked as a measure to rig the vote. 

The evidence from the polls remains clear that, despite the polarisation, there is still a large electoral constituency for an off-the-shelf negotiated Brexit that secures minimal disruption. But Corbyn’s failure to use the power that came with success in 2017 to make an explicit argument for the EEA in 2017 now means that he has no viable way to secure an explicitly pro-EEA position within Labour’s rulemaking structures, has insufficient goodwill among Remain voters in the country to sell the proposition, and must instead hope that Labour’s green credentials and a fear of Boris Johnson will persuade enough Remain voters to again trust Labour with their vote.

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.

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