Labour's Brexit hokey-cokey wins votes, so far – Financial Times

Tony Blair, the former UK prime minister, is on a mission to reverse the EU referendum result, saying last week that Brexit is “by no means a foregone conclusion”.

But Mr Blair’s Labour party, under its current leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has taken a more slippery, often contradictory approach to Brexit — a strategy that has so far yielded surprisingly positive results at the ballot box.

The party supports leaving the EU but some senior figures — including Tom Watson, deputy leader — back a second referendum on the UK’s membership of the bloc. Labour wants to end freedom of movement but would like a new form of “easy movement”. The party also wants to leave the EU’s single market but belong to “a single market”.

Pragmatism has trumped principle at every turn. Rebecca Long-Bailey, shadow business secretary, summed things up in an interview last summer, saying: “We want to have our cake and eat it [on Brexit].”

A further shift is possible this year, with Mr Corbyn under growing pressure from MPs to back Britain remaining in the EU’s customs union after Brexit. This would cement a close economic relationship for the foreseeable future, but risk of angering some of the Labour party’s Leave-voting supporters.

Many Brexit backers oppose customs union membership because it would impair Britain’s ability to strike trade deals with other countries.

“We believe that remaining in a customs union with the EU is a viable end destination, although this must be negotiated,” said one senior Labour party figure. The shadow cabinet is in disagreement over the issue.

If Labour does back customs union membership, it could set up an epic clash in parliament next year, when MPs will have the opportunity to vote on the final deal between the UK and EU.

Some MPs envision a scenario in which Tory rebels team up with Labour to force the government into accepting the customs union policy.

“That vote will be one of the most important in Britain’s postwar history, alongside the Iraq war,” said Stephen Kinnock, a Labour MP.

Throughout the past 18 months, Labour’s position on Brexit has involved a hokey-cokey of political expedience.

Most Labour MPs campaigned to Remain in the EU in the run-up to the 2016 EU referendum. Only 11 of 230 Labour MPs at the time backed Leave.

But many politicians found themselves at odds with their constituents, particularly among working-class voters in the party’s heartlands in the Midlands, the north of England and Wales. More than one-third of the 9m people who voted for Labour in the 2015 general election are thought to have backed Brexit, according to Lord Ashcroft, the Conservative pollster.

One member of the shadow cabinet said that Mr Blair’s calls to reverse Brexit had been unprincipled.

“The principle we believe in is the principle of democracy,” he said. “We asked the British people what they wanted to do about the EU, if we turned around and said, ‘we don’t like what you have told us’, it would be very undemocratic.”

Accepting the will of the people has been one constant in Labour’s position since the referendum result. Mr Corbyn was among the first politicians to call for Article 50 — which initiated divorce proceedings between the UK and the EU — to be triggered immediately.

In the ensuing weeks and months, the Labour leadership clung to woolly words about a “jobs-first Brexit”, rather than trying to force the direction of the process.

As a result, critics predicted the party would suffer in the snap general election last June, shedding Remain voters to the Liberal Democrats and Leave voters to the Conservatives. Instead, the ambiguity helped Labour harvest 40 per cent of the popular vote, gaining a net 30 seats in the House of Commons — mostly in areas that had backed staying in the EU.

Since then, the party’s stance has softened, in part due to pressure from union leaders concerned about the impact of a “hard Brexit” on the economy.

Late last summer, Keir Starmer, shadow Brexit secretary, set out a demand for the UK to stay in the customs union and single market for a two-year transitional period — a position that Theresa May, the prime minister, quickly fell behind.

Sir Keir, an experienced lawyer, has said that after any transition period, he wants the UK to stay in “a customs union and a single market variant” — even if this requires continued payments to the EU — calling it a “Norway-style agreement for the 21st century”.

But that proposal also has its contradictions. Labour would not accept staying in the existing EU single market because that would require the UK to accept free movement of EU citizens in and out of the UK. Yet, unlike the Tories, who are eager to slash net migration figures, Labour have said they still want “easy” movement of workers from the EU.

Emily Thornberry, shadow foreign secretary, said: “We have to leave the European Union but we don’t need to go a long way.”

Mr Kinnock acknowledged that “there have been many twists and turns in the story since the Brexit vote and Labour’s position has evolved along those lines as a result”.

But he is nevertheless one of the Labour MPs urging the party’s leadership to clarify its preferred outcome for the Brexit talks. “Labour needs to be in a position where it knows whether or not it will accept the final deal,” he said.

Discussions about the “end state” will feature heavily in shadow cabinet meetings this month.

But even now, not everyone is convinced that more clarity will benefit the party.

“It would be foolish to spell out a full position when we don’t have the power of implementation,” said one senior Labour figure. “It would give [journalists] the ability to pick apart our position.

“What is relevant is what we do now in relation to the Conservatives.”

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