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ANALYSIS: Keir Starmer answers some of the questions on Labour Brexit policy - and poses more

5 min read

Labour's well-documented problems working out a policy for Brexit are far from over. 

Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer has today provided the clearest statement of Labour’s position on Brexit to date.

There are two key parts of his Observer article that lay out the Opposition’s vision of leaving the European Union:

  1. The UK would remain in the single market and a (NB, not the) customs union throughout the transitional phase.
  2. Labour is now open to remaining in the single market permanently – but only if the European Union is willing to compromise on immigration.

Taking the transitional arrangements first, Starmer’s explanation for the plan is not that complicated: it will give certainty to businesses and, by taking an ‘off-the-shelf’ option for formally leaving the European Union (essentially, being a member of the European Economic Area), it will mean more time can be dedicated to negotiating the final destination of the UK and EU’s partnership.

The position on the customs union appears to be the same as that of the Government. The UK has to leave the EU’s one but the UK can negotiate another one on the same terms that would allow Liam Fox (or whoever else the International Trade Secretary might be) to agree and sign – but, crucially, not implement – trade deals with other ‘third countries’. So far, mainly uncontroversial but it’s worth noting that Starmer’s plan is the arrangement which Barry Gardiner, the Shadow International Trade Secretary, branded a “disaster” for reasons which he sets out HERE.

Starmer’s revelation that Labour wants to stay in the single market for the transition period is the first time it has been spelt out in such terms. It flies very directly in the face of what Jeremy Corbyn said on 23 July, that single market membership is “inextricably linked” to membership of the European Union. It also – as Starmer acknowledges – means the UK would abide by the rules of the club and accept free movement throughout that period.

Here there is clear blue/red water with the Government’s position. In their joint article earlier in the month, Philip Hammond and Fox said the UK would be outside the single market and “not party to EU treaties”. While the Government’s plan for the transition period is still a bit murky – with a clear position on immigration policy one of many issues yet to be determined – Labour’s is quite simple: it’s the ‘Norway option’ of Brexit. Critics describe this as a “fax democracy”, because it entails remaining subject to the rules of the EU without any say in setting the rules. But Starmer and Labour have concluded that, rather than trying to seek bespoke systems to work through what will be – in theory at least – a fairly short period of time, it is preferable to accept the terms as they are.


And so to the longer-term picture. Here, Starmer is less clear. The ‘Norway option’ is not “durable or acceptable” final settlement for the UK’s relationship with Brussels, he says, singling out “more effective management of migration” as the key block. The permanent deal must “retain the benefits of the customs union and the single market” – but beyond that, there is little detail. He says a “form of customs union” could be involved, which is a very uncontroversial statement, but he also says single market membership is not off the table permanently. “Labour is flexible as to whether the benefits of the single market are best retained by negotiating a new single market relationship or by working up from a bespoke trade deal,” Starmer writes.

The big question is whether there is anything to be wrangled from the EU on immigration. The EU has been resolute in ruling out any “cherry-picking” – but, as has been pointed out before, there is scope even within the existing definition of free movement for tougher enforcement mechanisms to stop it being abused.

While this formulation does give the party a clearer position for now, taken to its logical conclusion it actually makes it impossible for Labour to answer the key question of: what do you want the UK’s future relationship with the European Union to be? With Labour almost certain not to be in power during the negotiations and the current Government accepting the EU’s stance that no renegotiation of free movement principles is plausible, whether or not the “effective management of migration” can be achieved within the single market is not going to be resolved. At least, it’s not going to be resolved until a Labour government exists (presumably at the earliest 2022, which makes Starmer’s timeframe of four years for the transition phase look very shaky indeed). So how can Labour make a determination on whether or not it wants to remain in the single market for good in time for the next election?

Today’s article on Brexit does provide certainty about Labour’s position for the phase between leaving the EU and really leaving the EU. It’s what comes afterwards that remains anyone’s guess. And the piece – although it has been widely welcomed by the PLP – has notably failed to placate the most pro-EU wing of the party, which has today launched its own campaign (led by Heidi Alexander and Alison McGovern) to remain in the single market permanently. And it will of course upset the Brexiteer Labour voters, of whom there are very many. So there may be plenty more Brexit headaches to come for the Opposition. 

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