Why Jeremy Corbyn has refused to back European single market membership

The Labour leader will not support continued UK membership without significant reforms. 

NS

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What does Brexit really mean? After parliament's return, all sides are being forced to provide greater clarity. Labour sources have today revealed for the first time that Jeremy Corbyn does not support automatic UK membership of the single market. They emphasised his opposition to "damaging" rules such as state aid restrictions and said only that he favoured "full access" for goods and services". Should the EU fail to radically reform the market, Labour is likely to oppose membership. In parliament, Corbyn denounced Theresa May's support for open markets as "free trade dogma". 

The Labour leader's stance is, in some respects, unsurprising. He has opposed every major European treaty since voting against EEC membership in 1975 and the left has long loathed the single market as a Thatcherite creation (it was the Conservative prime minister who signed the Single European Act in 1986).

Corbyn's position conflicts with that of the Scottish government, London mayor Sadiq Khan and many Labour MPs, all of whom are pushing for the UK to retain single market membership. But it aligns with that of most Conservative MPs who are opposed to single market membership unless the UK is granted significant control over free movement. This concession, as the experience of Norway and Switzerland testifies, is highly unlikely. With this in mind, Brexit secretary David Davis stated on Monday that it was "improbable" that the Britain would retain membership if this entailed "giving up control of our borders".

But a spokeswoman for Theresa May subsequently contradicted his stance, emphasising that it was "his view" and that "the Prime Minister's view is that we should be ambitious and go after the best deal we can". Challenged on the subject at PMQs by the SNP's Angus Robertson, May said she would not provide a "running commentary" on the negotiations and stated only that she would get "the right deal". This, she said, would involve both "the trade of goods and services with the EU" and "control of the movement of people". 

The government is echoing Boris Johnson's stance on cake: "pro-having it and pro-eating it". But it is one the EU, which hopes to deter other member states from departing, is unlikely to respect. Corbyn's hostility towards the single market both reflects the past and anticipates the future. 

George Eaton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.