A cleft stick but not one of Labour’s making

There is a good deal of rumbling comment at the moment about Labour Party policy on Brexit and there was, what might be termed, a clarification yesterday. The party website changed from saying ‘We’ll fight to secure single market membership’ to ‘We’ll fight for tariff free access to the single market’. You might think this is not a very significant change but it’s being used by those people who have always wanted to undermine Jeremy Corbyn to attempt to put a wedge between what he wants from Brexit and what Keir Starmer might be hoping to achieve. There seems to be a suggestion that Labour Party policy is divided and the core of the problem is the dogged determination of Jeremy Corbyn to be out of Europe.

Now, if you’re one of these people who never wanted him to be leader of the Labour Party in the first place, who supported the Parliamentary Labour Party sniping at him, who thinks he is managed by crazy lefties and who didn’t mind The Guardian constantly citing unattributable sources within the party to criticise him and his leadership then this supports your case. You can conveniently forget that he came very close to winning a general election and that he is now in a position where he would win one it was called today. He has achieved substantive policy climbdowns from the Tories whose leadership is currently in disarray. That is actually quite an achievement! But if now you’re using Europe to backup the case you made six months ago and all that blah blah blah, he will never win an election then maybe you just ought to reflect for five minutes.

First off, why the clarification? It is straightforward really. Labour is, and has always been, a party that respects democracy. It votes on everything and it respects majority voting. There is simply no way for the party to indicate, one way or another, that it has abandoned that principle. If it did, imagine the fun the right-wing media would have. At the same time, the single market is a function of the EU and you cannot be a member of the single market without being a member of the EU although terms are sometimes bandied about in a casual way. The change to the website wording is a helpful clarification because what Labour wants, having accepted the vote of the majority of the British people, is the best possible disengagement from Europe, and tariff free access to the single market is the next best thing to being part of it. None of this is difficult and it certainly doesn’t need party members to make it problematic.

That can all be said without assuming that the Tory Brexit is a done and dusted deal. On the contrary, it is anything but. If a stroppy right-wing cast of negotiators walks away in eighteen months time their recommendations will not get through any kind of House of Commons vote, let alone the House of Lords. The government will fall and the next Labour government will be left to pick up the pieces. By then, there may well be a very strong feeling across the nation and in Parliament that the British people did not know what they were letting themselves in for and that what is on offer is not what people want. It will take strong leadership and a consensus across Parliament to stand up and say we want to play our part in a reformed Europe but it will certainly be feasible. Another referendum? Maybe or maybe not but that is one way in which the whole thing can unravel. What is clear at the moment is that that position has to evolve, the options have to be explored and the consequences made clear to people. That way, democracy is supported and delivers a better result.

In the meanwhile, what is most likely to get the country to that position is a strong united opposition to any kind of hard deal. No one would benefit from losing European human rights, a plethora of critical European organisations, the European Court, some kind of freedom of movement and it’s daft to suggest that Jeremy Corbyn wants them all to go. The party, united, wants tariff free access to the single market, so does business and finance and trying to foster divisions in that principled position is wrongheaded and unhelpful.

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