Is Labour’s Position On Brexit Any Different To The Conservatives’?

Keir Starmer MP - Flickr/Chatham House

Labour’s Brexit spokesman, Keir Starmer, today set out to make the party’s position on Brexit clear, but by the end of his speech, people were far more confused about the differentiation between Labour and the Conservatives on the issue.

Access to the Single Market is essentially the European question. Freedom of movement and trade, the two biggest issues for both sides of the Brexit argument are encompassed by the Single Market. Leave voters want out of the Single Market to end free movement while Remainers see the benefits of access for the British economy.

For Labour to have a different position to the Government on Brexit, it has to provide an alternative to leaving the Single Market. And as Her Majesty’s official opposition, it is their job to do just that. But they haven’t.

The referendum opened a pandora’s box of divisions on immigration within the party’s base. The beauty of First Past The Post means that most Labour constituencies voted to Leave the European Union, which, in normal circumstances, would result in the Labour leadership supporting Theresa May’s hard-Brexit approach.

But the Labour Party, with its heart in – 59.9% Remain – London, is diametrically opposed to the views held by Brexiteers. It is an internationalist party that believes in cooperation through institutions like the European Union. And while most Labour MPs represent Leave constituencies, two thirds of Labour supporters voted to Remain, and the vast majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party holds a positive view of the European Union and its aims.

Now you see the conundrum.

The question of access to the Single Market, or holding an opposing view to the Government on Brexit, is one of holding together the two sides of Labour’s coalition. A fitting position for the party to hold in this situation would be to maintain both access to the Single Market and stop uncontrolled migration from European countries, a position that would appease both sides. In fact, it is Labour’s policy.

“We accept that immigration rules are going to have to change when we leave the EU,” Keir Starmer said today, but also added that Labour’s position would be to “retain the benefits of the Single Market and Customs union”.

While it’s convenient thing for the Labour leadership to say, it’s a wholly unrealistic proposal. When the Government proposed a similar strategy of maximising both control over immigration and access to the Single Market, the EU drew a red line and rendered such a deal implausible.

“No cherry picking,” said Merkel, the most powerful Head of State in the bloc. The fact that Labour’s “new proposal” on Brexit is the same as what the Government had proposed and failed to achieve just months ago shows how difficult an issue Brexit is for the Labour leadership. By shutting down the Government’s plan to negotiate Single Market access, the EU ended any hope of any foreseeable electoral success for Labour.

On 9 June, the party will face the truth, the Brexit referendum permanently split the Labour in a way that will be hard to reconcile in ten years, let alone ten months.

For now, it seems the party has opted for the same immigration-first approach as the Government, with barely any differentiation from Theresa May’s negotiating position, with a few unrealistic objectives added on.

Keir Starmer will have a hard time explaining Labour’s incoherent negotiating position over the coming weeks, but whoever leads the party after the election will face the toughest job of all: what position can the party take to win back Leave voters in Doncaster as well as Remainers in Bermondsey?

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