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5 December 2017

As far as the customs union goes, Labour can agree on what words to say but not what they mean

Labour's Brexit policy is getting lost in translation. 

By Stephen Bush

As far as Brexit goes, Labour is united on what words to say but divided on meaning. The party’s position is unchanged from before the election and indeed has remained the same since Keir Starmer was first appointed to the post of shadow Brexit secretary. It’s to negotiate a post-Brexit arrangement that replicates the “exact same benefits” of the United Kingdom’s membership of the customs union, the single market and the other associated institutions of the European Union.

The difficulty comes when you ask Labour MPs what those words mean. For some, the only way to have a Brexit which retains the “exact same benefits” is not to have one at all, for others it is to end up in the European Economic Area. For others it means a more drastic Brexit, either to control immigration, to enact a radical left programme or both. For some people Brexit is a disaster that must be stopped, for others it is an opportunity, for a third group it is a disaster that can’t be stopped and Labour’s central aim should be to avoid responsibility for the collision, whenever it arrives. The parliamentary Labour Party has at least five schools of thought on the European Union.

As far as winning the next election goes, Labour’s position is impeccable, because it allows them to tell Labour voters who opted to Leave that they will honour it while hinting to Remain voters that they might get a softer one after all. While the Conservatives are split on whether to have a hard or a soft Brexit, Labour can mostly unite around its quantum Brexit: contents to be decided as and when the box is opened. (And as the only politician with the power to force it open is Theresa May, it will remain closed unless she does something clever.)

The confusion, as with today’s “Labour for the customs union, Labour not for the customs union” issue, comes when a policy trade-off forces the party to alight, however briefly, on one form of Brexit or another. Labour’s official position on the customs union remains unchanged – that it will seek the exact same benefits or retain customs union membership. The problem is that as far as the question of the Irish border goes, the argument is open and shut: it’s better to be in the customs union than not.

Which is why Starmer, however briefly, appeared to be suggesting that Labour were publicly supporting the customs union.

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The whole thing is a disappointment for political activists who hope that Brexit might be stopped. But as far as Labour’s real strategy goes – which is to win the 2022 election and worry about Brexit later – another day in which the party got to hint that it was maybe for Brexit and maybe against it isn’t a bad one.

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