Now Corbyn’s agreed to customs union, let’s push referendum

by Hugo Dixon | 26.02.2018

Jeremy Corbyn’s support for the customs union is a good start. But he needs to make further changes to his European policy before it is fit for purpose.

The top priority is to say that the public should get a vote on the Brexit deal. Pushing for this is more important even than getting the Labour leader to support staying in the single market. It’s a more feasible objective too.

In a speech today, Corbyn backed negotiating a new customs union with the EU, where we have a say in any new trade deals the bloc cuts. He also said he wanted a new strong relationship with the single market, which involved staying in the EU’s regulatory agencies.

There are three big benefits from this policy. First, it means we should be able to avoid border controls in Ireland, which might threaten the peace process. Second, it means our manufacturing industry’s supply chains which criss-cross Europe won’t be gummed up. Third, Labour may now team up with Tory rebels and drive a horse and coaches through the government’s Brexit plan, which is to quit the customs union. 

But there are also big problems with Labour’s policy. First, it wouldn’t fully protect our world-beating services industries, which are 80% of our economy. Second, it would turn us into a rule-taker. The EU might consult us on future trade deals with the US and China, as well as single market regulations. But we wouldn’t get a vote on them. That’s a big step backwards from our current position as one of Europe’s big powers.

Next priority? Referendum on Brexit deal

How should pro-European activists, who can claim some of the credit for getting Corbyn to back a customs union, now devote their energies?

Some think they should push the Labour leader to support continued membership of the single market – because that would then protect our services industries too. The snag is this would do nothing to answer the criticism that we are being turned into a “vassal state”.

What’s more, if we stayed in the single market, we would have to accept free movement of people. Although the UK benefits from free movement, it will be incredibly hard to persuade Labour to back it so long as MPs with constituencies in the Midlands and Northern England think their voters don’t want it. The furthest Corbyn would go today was to promise “reasonable management” of migration.

Better for pro-European activists to press Corbyn to say that, if he became prime minister, he would put the Brexit deal he negotiated to the people – and to say that Theresa May should do the same, if she manages to hang on in Downing Street.

This is the priority partly because it would be a bigger prize than single market membership. If Labour wholeheartedly backed a referendum on the Brexit deal, there would be a good chance of ending this whole madness. We could then stay in the customs union and the single market, while remaining one of Europe’s top powers.

This is also a priority because it will probably be easier to get Labour to embrace a referendum on the Brexit deal than single market membership. Not only could it make the principled democratic argument that the people should have a vote on what the Tories – or, for that matter, Corbyn – manage to negotiate. Such a ploy would also play to Labour’s electoral advantage, as many pro-Europeans from across the political spectrum would flock to its banner while it wouldn’t have to worry that much about voters deserting the party in its northern heartlands.

So, well done, Jezza, for the speech you’ve made. But don’t stop there. You’re on a journey and you’ve got at least one more big step to take.

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This article was updated shortly after publication to include a sentence about how Labour’s policy could drive a coach and horses through the government’s Brexit plan.

Edited by Luke Lythgoe

2 Responses to “Now Corbyn’s agreed to customs union, let’s push referendum”

  • An interesting development here. Corbyn is saying jobs, business etc. are the top priority, so not Brexit at any cost. David Davis is quoted as saying “It was never about the economy”. In other words, DD and cronies are on the “will of the people” / Brexit dogma, regardless of the damage it causes.
    For the Tories, all we really have is a desperate attempt to keep the Tory Party together and at the same time minimize the damage to the country. Hence their focus on “will of the people”, because they have nothing else to offer. A real case of the Emperor’s Clothes in politics.
    It can still all crumble….first opportunity are the local elections…but the “will of the people” might beat me to it 🙂

  • Before the Referendum it was clear that all three parties (MP’s and cabinets), agreed that staying in the EU was the best thing for the country. Along with the Mandarins of the Civil Service, CBI, and other leading national leaders (Except Trump). This is all now hard work……trying to negotiate a square pig in a round hole will never work, the easy option, stay in. A 17m leave vote out of 45m electorate is hardly a persuasive mandate. But, come on, who is taking up the baton? Good on you Soros. What about a Remainer Crowdfounder to back up Soros? I’d chuck in a lot. Well, a big bit.