Labour’s dam has broken.
For several weeks now, the party’s shadow Brexit Secretary Sir Keir Starmer has been saying that freedom of movement for European workers into the UK cannot – and should not – continue. Various Labour MPs have been lobbying along the same lines.
And now the party leader Jeremy Corbyn, who previously said he would “defend” EU free movement, has fallen into line.
“Labour is not wedded to freedom of movement for EU citizens as a point of principle,” he will say in a speech today in Peterborough. “Changes to the way migration rules operate from the EU will be part of the negotiations.”
Whatever your view on immigration and pan-European freedoms, let’s be abundantly clear what this all means. It means Labour is now acquiescing in Theresa May’s hard Brexit.
The main opposition party – a party which styles itself as a protector of the interests of ordinary working men and women – is giving the green light for the Prime Minister to pull the UK not only out of the European Union but entirely out of the single market for goods, services, workers and capital.
This is a destination that the overwhelming consensus of expert economic opinion holds will inflict severe damage on the economy and hurt the living standards of ordinary working men and women relative to a scenario in which Britain stays in the single market as, for instance, a member of the European Economic Area.
But how can we be categorical about all this? Corbyn is also stressing today that he wants “full access to the European single market” and criticising the Government for jeopardising the economy through not having a plan. Starmer slams May for dragging Britain towards a hard Brexit.
Doesn’t that show that Labour’s position is not so clear-cut as this conclusion suggests?
Isn’t there still hope?
There are three reasons why the answer is no: European political realities, weasel words and archaic ideological fantasies.
If Britain wants to remain a part of the single market, a watering-down of freedom of movement – “managed migration” as Corbyn puts it – is simply not on offer.
The German Chancellor Angela Merkel made that clear for the hundredth time in a speech in Cologne yesterday. All those who are expert in European diplomacy insist this is not a bluff or a bargaining position, but a genuine red line.
And indeed it stands to reason. Why would the 27 other nations of the EU allow Britain to enjoy all the benefits of the single market while allowing Britain to opt out of the free movement of people?
They don’t allow Norway or Liechtenstein – who are part of the single market but not members of the EU – this privilege. Both have to accept free movement in return.
Even Switzerland – which is not part of the single market but has a comprehensive web of deep free trade deals with the EU – has to accept free movement as a quid pro quo.
It’s possible to assert that Europe’s leaders will ultimately be prepared to pull down one of the fundamental pillars of the single market to suit Britain.
But it’s also possible to assert that the moon really is made of Swiss cheese. Asserting something doesn’t make it true.
By making a red line of EU immigration control, Corbyn is aping the position of Theresa May.
And sterling is falling because traders are increasing their bets that we are heading for a hard Brexit thanks to May’s insistence on immigration control.
And then there are Labour’s weasel words. Any mention of “access” to the single market should be banned. As has been widely noted, every country on earth has “access” to the single market, in that trade can and does take place between Europe and the outside world. The question is what are the terms of that access.
By claiming that he wants “full access” to the single market, Corbyn is giving the impression he wants Britain to remain a part of the single market, in the manner of the non-EU member Norway.
But in reality, that formulation gives him leeway to settle for something as weak as a Canadian-style tariff-abolishing trade deal with the EU.
Starmer is engaged in a similar legerdemain. The former director of public prosecutions is an intelligent man and will be well aware that his position on free movement means he would have to be prepared to see Britain leave the single market.
So by railing against a hard Brexit, he is implicitly redefining hard Brexit to exclude single market exit, leaving it as merely the conclusion of an unsatisfactory free trade deal.
To put it bluntly, whenever Labour says hard Brexit, bear in mind that they now do not regard single market exit as hard.
Finally, the ideology: Corbyn is arguing today that leaving the EU will liberate Britain to intervene in struggling domestic industries such as steel, something that is currently restricted by state aid rules. His team has argued in the past that exiting the single market will remove an obstacle to Britain becoming a fairer and more socially democratic state.
But this is a nonsense argument, as the existence of occasionally interventionist social democracies in France and Germany demonstrates; the EU does not prevent those states being fairer in many ways than the UK.
This spurious line of argument from Corbyn suggests he still holds the Bennite view from the 1970s that the EU is a form of capitalist conspiracy. In other words, his position today is being influenced by a fossilised left-wing ideology.
But let’s cut to the fundamental point: if you feel that Britain remaining part of the single market after 2019 is in your economic interest, do not look to Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party to be your champion.
This article was published in The Independent 10/01/17