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Keir Starmer announces major Labour shift on single market membership after Brexit

3 min read

Labour wants the UK to remain in the single market and customs union for the duration of a transition deal after Brexit, Keir Starmer has announced. 

The Shadow Brexit Secretary also said the UK could stay in the single market permanently – if the European Union was willing to make a concession on the free movement of people.

The new position clashes with recent actions by Jeremy Corbyn, after the Labour leader sacked frontbenchers who voted for an amendment to keep Britain in the single market and said membership was “inextricably linked” to being part of the EU.

Mr Starmer said the UK would “abide by the common rules” of the customs union and single market, meaning free movement would not end on the day the UK formally leaves.

In an article for the Observer, he said Labour’s stance on the transitional arrangements would be “hugely advantageous” for businesses.

“By remaining inside a customs union and the single market in a transitional phase we would be certain that goods and services could continue to flow between the EU and the UK without tariffs, customs checks or additional red tape,” he wrote.

The Government has said the UK will be out of the EU’s customs union and single market at the end of March 2019.

But, like Labour, ministers want to agree a customs union deal to avoid any “cliff edge” scenario on the day of Brexit while allowing them to secure trade agreements with other countries during the transition period.

Mr Starmer also opened the door to Labour backing continued membership of the single market beyond the transitional period.

Though he said continuing with the current rules would be “imperfect and prove unsustainable” for the longer-term, he would not rule out staying in the single market if a new arrangement could be agreed on immigration.

He added: “We will always put jobs and the economy first. That means remaining in a form of customs union with the EU is a possible end destination for Labour, but that must be subject to negotiations.

“It also means that 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.”

Mr Starmer’s article marks a major shift in the party’s approach to Brexit.

Last month Mr Corbyn said membership of the single market was “dependent on membership of the EU”.

In June he sacked three frontbenchers who rebelled against the whip to call for the UK to stay part of the single market.

Shadow International Trade Secretary Barry Gardiner has also recently said it would be a “disaster” to agree a customs union deal with the EU while single market membership without being a full EU member would leave the UK as a “vassal state”.

Labour’s backing for single market membership during the transition period could draw into question whether the Government has a majority in the House of Commons for its position that the UK should leave. 

Pro-EU Labour MPs have welcomed the policy shift. Chuka Umunna said: "This will rightly pile the pressure on the Government to put membership of the single market and the customs union at the heart of their negotiating strategy. Anything else will be bad news for our economy, jobs, public services and social justice.”

But Lib Dem Brexit spokesman Tom Brake said: "Judge a party by hard actions, not empty words. Jeremy Corbyn conned a generation at the last general election that he was somehow against Brexit. He isn't.

"Keir Starmer can say he opposes hard Brexit, but his leader doesn't back him. Labour is utterly divided. Even Mr Starmer is only proposing to remain in the single market during a transitional period, and refuses to say he will back membership after that."

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