The Tory position on Brexit and Single Market access is terrible, the vagueness of their understanding of the EU terrifying. That shouldn’t disguise the fact that the Labour position is also terrible. Labour aren’t proposing to cut workers’ rights, and Keir Starmer seems like he’d be much better prepared than David ‘100 pages of notes’ Davis. Still, that’s a low bar, Labour shouldn’t be excused on Brexit just because they’re less terrible than the Tories.
John McDonnell has spoken about “tariff-free access to the Single Market”. The best way to be sure of achieving that is by being in the Single Market. An alternative could take months to negotiate, and given the UK’s weak negotiating position, would probably mean having to give up something in return. Even the best possible option would be a step down from where we are at the moment – Norway has access to the Single Market, but have to abide by EU regulations, which they have no say in shaping.
Labour’s manifesto position is to focus on “retaining the benefits of the Single Market and the Customs Union – which are essential for maintaining industries, jobs and businesses in Britain” and to give Parliament larger say in the process of exiting the European Union.
There’s nothing in Chuka Umunna’s amendment which goes against this party line. If anything, McDonnell is one going against what the NEC approved, saying that he doesn’t “think it’s feasible” to remain in the single market, and that if it were “people will interpret membership of the single market as not respecting that referendum”.
If the UK is to retain “the benefits of the Single Market and the Customs Union” then the obvious choice is to remain inside both. The manifesto sets goals, not strategy. Backbenchers should follow the leaders’ strategy, but when the leaders fail to offer clear leadership, its reasonable for backbenchers to offer their own. Obviously its something Corbyn and McDonnell have done multiple times over their career, putting pressure on Blair, Brown and others, and that is not a sign of disloyalty to the party, merely interpretting the values and ideal strategy of the party differently to the leader of the time. Any party which truly believes in empowering the masses rather than a small clique should respect this. And the same applies when Corbyn and McDonnell are the ones in power.
The fact that it was Chuka Umunna who tabled the amendment complicates things. He’s an opportunist, who’s always been pretty transparent in making himself look good, and who clearly sees himself as the leader-in-waiting. Comically, a computer in his law firm was once used to alter his wikipedia page to add the claim that he “may end up as the UK’s Barack Obama”.
Although we can’t find proof to back this up, we have a strong memory of laughing when Umunna’s campaign team chanted “yes we can” when he was first elected to Parliament in 2010, near the height of Obamamania.
Umunna was talking about sacrificing Single Market membership to get rid of Freedom of Movement (both good things) in September last year. This was more about political strategy than UK national interest. It was an appeal to Labour – UKIP floating voters, to make Labour and himself look ‘tough’, rather than to achieve anything.
But the shallowness of Umunna’s beliefs doesn’t disguise that his actions yesterday were correct. His amendment was never going to pass, but it’s important to have some form of Parliamentary debate on the type of Brexit we pursue. Keeping pressure on from within the opposition parties increases the possibility that the more rational elements of the Tory Party could rebel and force the leadership into pursuing a form of Brexit which doesn’t actively damage workers’ rights.
Its also the correct political choice. Demographically both Labour and Remain voters are more likely to be aged 35 or under, and the seats swinging towards Labour in the 2017 election were generally those in areas that voted to remain.
Ideally this motion should have been tabled by shadow cabinet (perhaps Starmer as Shadow Brexit Secretary). But, with only twenty months remaining until Brexit negotiations are complete and Labour’s position not much better than Tory talk of getting ‘the best possible deal’, it’s totally understandable for backbenchers to rebel.
In general we agree far, far more with Corbyn and McDonnell than Umunna. But politics is often more subtle than a clear moral and clear immoral option. Everyone has friends and relatives who we respect on a personal level but disagree with politically. Corbyn and McDonnell don’t seem to have a strong plan for how to avoid a Brexit disaster. Even if Theresa May miscalculates by calling an election late this year or early next year which she loses, it would take a fantastic set of negotiations by a Labour government to get all the benefits of the single market.
It’s not clear how Corbyn and McDonnell plan to achieve their objectives.