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21 September 2017

How will Labour manage its Brexit divisions?

The EU is the only issue on which party activists significantly diverge from Jeremy Corbyn. 

By George Eaton

For decades, Labour has relished the Conservatives’ unending civil war over Europe. But the opposition has its own divisions to contend with. There are those in Labour who regard its current stance as too Europhile (seven MPs voted for the Tories’ EU Withdrawal Bill) and a larger number who regard it as too Eurosceptic (49 MPs voted for single market membership in June). 

The party’s recent support for single market and customs union membership during a Brexit “transition period” provided a point of unity and a dividing line with the Conservatives. But tensions endure. Shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer did not commit to permanent single market membership on the grounds that it could force continued free movement (which Labour’s manifesto pledged to end). For a significant number of MPs, concentrated in the West Midlands and Yorkshire, the UK’s future European relationship must involve significant curbs on immigration (35 per cent of the party’s 2017 voters backed Leave). 

Others on the left of the party, most notably Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, have long spoken of the single market as an obstacle to socialism (Corbyn voted against its creation in 1986 and against all subsequent major EU legislation). 

At next week’s Labour conference, Brexit could prove the greatest flashpoint. The trade union movement (which was pivotal in the transition debate) and business lobbyists (alive to the possibility of a Labour government) will both push for a softer stance.

Brexit is also the only major issue on which Labour activists significantly diverge from Corbyn. recent poll found that 66 per cent of members believe the UK should “definitely” remain in the single market, with a further 20.7 per cent more favourable than not. Nearly half of the Labour grassroots (49 per cent) support a referendum on the final Brexit deal, with a further 29.4 per cent inclined towards one.

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Constituency parties have submitted motions backing single market membership and free movement, which could be selected for debate next week. Corbyn has long voiced his belief that activists should have greater influence over policymaking.

Those on the left opposed to Corbyn’s stance, include Manuel Cortes, the general secretary of the TSSA union, and Yanis Varoufakis, the former Greek finance minister. The latter recently told me: “Borders should be an enemy of all progressives: either we are internationalists, or we are not. Those of us who have been critical of neoliberal globalisation have always pointed out that we have the free movement of goods, commodities and capital – but not of people.”

Others, however, believe that Labour should maintain greater ambiguity and focus on exploiting the Conservatives’ divisions. As a Labour insider told me: “You shouldn’t give yourself the problems of government when you don’t have the advantages of government.” Labour, he suggested, should follow former leader John Smith’s adroitly tactical approach to the Maastricht Treaty. 

At present, there is little external pressure for Labour to soften its Brexit stance. The Liberal Democrats, who have demanded a referendum on the final deal, are still flatlining in the polls and a new centrist party remains a fantasy. Corbyn and other shadow cabinet ministers are mindful of the risk of alienating Labour’s Eurosceptic voters. For now, they are following the advice of Napoleon: “Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.”