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Labour is keeping all Brexit options open - including no Brexit

Faced with a divided country and party, Jeremy Corbyn has avoided binding his hands. 

Labour, it sometimes feels, has had more positions than the Kama Sutra on Brexit. During today's Urgent Question to David Davis, Keir Starmer was said by Labour MPs and journalists to have unveiled another. "Will the Prime Minister now rethink her reckless red lines and put options such as the Customs Union and Single Market back on the table for negotiations?" the shadow Brexit Secretary asked. 

Labour is usually described as having ruled out membership of the Single Market and the Customs Union in its 2017 election manifesto (though it has since supported remaining in both for a two-year transition period). In reality, it did no such thing. The party promised a "strong emphasis" on retaining "the benefits" of the Single Market and the Customs Union, and stated that "freedom of movement will end when we leave the European Union". This was an ambiguous position designed to satisfy Remain and Leave voters and unite the Parliamentary Labour Party - and it worked rather well. 

As the Brexit negotiations have become ever more fraught, Corbyn has followed Napoleon's advice: "Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake". He has rarely raised the subject at PMQs and has rejected calls for a cross-party commission. But, largely unnoticed, the Labour leader has simultaneously kept all options open. 

Corbyn, a lifelong Eurosceptic, has sometimes suggested that Brexit inevitably entails withdrawal from the Single Market (after all, he voted against its creation). But he has never definitely ruled out membership of the Single Market and the Customs Union (or at least something close it). As I recently reported, in his meeting with EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier in October, Corbyn "came across as being in favour, broadly, of staying in the Single Market and the Customs Union". Though Labour has stated that Free Movement will formally end (a position that satisfies Labour MPs in Leave constituencies), this does not mean that "free movement" will. 

In a febrile political climate, Corbyn's priority has been to avoided binding his hands. Where the public lead, he may follow. As a Labour MP recently told me: "If the leadership think that without a more anti-Brexit position they won't get into No.10, they’ll move." Though Labour has not backed a second referendum, it has notably not ruled one out. As Corbyn remarked at a European Socialist Conference last weekend: "We’ve not made any decision on a second referendum. What we’ve said is that we would respect the result of the first referendum."

At present, Labour's stance aligns with that of the public. Though a majority of voters now believe the Brexit vote was "wrong" (according to YouGov polling), they also believe the government has a duty to respect it. Like Labour, the public similarly want to end free movement while maintaining the benefits of Single Market and the Customs Union (as Labour does). Oppositions have often profited from demanding the impossible and then complaining when the government fails to deliver. 

Hard Brexit, soft Brexit or no Brexit - Labour has not ruled any of these out. To do so now, would risk falling foul of public opinion later. In truth, Labour only has one Brexit position: to keep all options open. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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What the university staff strike reveals about our broken higher education system

The marketisation of our universities is facing its biggest opposition yet.

The biggest industrial strike ever by academic staff in Britain's universities has begun.

National newspapers are running panicked headlines about what may happen if the strike lasts: “University strike puts final exams in danger”, warns The Times. “University strikes could hit exams and graduation ceremonies”, says the Guardian. But as well as affecting the education of students who are heavily in debt, the strikes will hit academics with very different levels of job security, and university establishments at a time when higher education is on the political agenda. 

The University and College Union voted for strike action last month over a failure to reach an agreement with Universities UK (UUK), the body which represents of the Vice Chancellors of every university in the country, over changes to academics' pension plans.

The pension scheme at the heart of the conflict, the Universities Superannuation Scheme, currently has over 400,000 participants. UUK have stated that the pension scheme currently has a £6.1bn deficit and that the cost of future benefits has increased by one third since 2014. They are proposing a switch from a direct benefit pension scheme (fixed, guaranteed pension payments) to a direct contribution scheme (reliant on stock markets) to maintain the scheme's sustainability.

However, many academics argue the deficit is overstated, and is instead a cynical attempt to reduce the universities' pension liabilties. 

Older and more senior academics who have already spent several decades paying into the system will be less affected by the changes, as contributions will be protected under the old scheme until 2019. 

UCU however allege that this change will result in an average yearly £10,000 loss in staff members' pensions. Academics at 61 universities, including the likes of Oxbridge, UCL, Imperial College London, Cardiff University and the University of Edinburgh will be striking for 14 days. 

The strikes begin on Thursday, and yet no-one seems to know what will happen. FAQs provided by universities to students all appear to have a similar theme: Academic disruption will be minimised, but if you have a complaint, please email us. 

16 percent of academic staff at these universities will be on strike (because most academics aren't a part of a union) but lectures and seminars have still been cancelled. It is still unclear for students whether they will be examined on subjects that they will miss. 

But for the most part, students appear to support the academics. Mark Crawford, a Postgraduate Sabbatical Officer at UCL (the biggest university in the country to strike) says he has been pleasantly surprised by the number of students who have messaged asking him how they can help. 

Perhaps this is due to the pains some academics have gone to minimise the disruption their students will face. Some lecturers have made presentations available online, and have amendeded their reading lists. One academic at King's College London, KCL, has even rearranged her seminars off campus. 

Yet this feeling of goodwill may disappear when reality kicks in. Robert Adderly, a second year Law student at KCL, and a campaigner for the student group provocatively titled “Students Against Strikes” says he’s unsure how supportive students will be once the action actually begins. 

Adderly, while sympathetic to the concerns of the academics does not believe striking is the most effective way to negotiate with Universities UK. He goes on to say that he believes “neither side is willing to compromise” and says that the “only people losing out are students.”

He also says he believes a lot of students “haven’t assessed how they really feel about the strikes” and that the “longer it goes on, the more students who will get angry”. 

Adderly's thoughts are backed by a poll conducted by Trendence UK, a market research company, which found that 38 per cent of students supported their academics on strike, compred to 38 per cent who did not.

Several academics have spoken to the New Statesman off the record about feelings of uneasiness around the strike, arguing that there is a better, less disruptive way of resolving the pension debate. Others are unsure about the leadership of UCU and believe striking will only lead to a build up of work later. 

Professor Andrew Pomiankowski at UCL emailed his students saying while he supported the strike, he would continue conducting his classes this week. He later told the New Statesman “I have a lot of sympathy with the reasons for the strike - the loss of provision of pensions, especially for the younger members of staff. Talking is the only way of resolving this problem. However, I don’t feel that I should disrupt teaching of students. That’s a step too far.”

The strikes go to the heart of the debate about the marketisation of university. Even students who support the strike are in conflict with one another. Notably, students who support the strikes are unhappy with campaigns such as Adderly’s which are also demanding universities compensate them for lost teaching hours. Crawford says your “first instinct shouldn’t be how much am I losing? It should be how much is our staff losing.”

On the other hand, Adderly argues we shouldn’t pretend the marketisation of university hasn’t already happened, saying “It’s here. It’s happening. We are now consumers.” 

Though it appears unlikely that universities will refund students, these strikes are highlighting how our attitudes to higher education have changed in a short space of time, and causing some to ask if this is the future we want for British higher education.