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How long can Labour linger on the fence?

17th August 2017

One of the Tories biggest criticisms of Jeremy Corbyn has been his unwillingness to properly set out the Labour Party’s stance on Brexit. Whilst the Conservative Cabinet is (largely) committed to ending free movement, and as a result leaving the single market, Labour’s position is more tenuous.

The Labour Party’s 2017 manifesto avoided an explicit commitment to stay in the single market, but did promise to replace the Conservative’s Brexit white paper with “fresh negotiating priorities that have a strong emphasis on retaining the benefits of the Single Market and the Customs Union.” Read into that what you will.

While Labour’s Brexit positioning has come under attack from Conservative politicians and the media, it looks to have been paying dividends with the public. Data released by the British Election Study showed that Labour’s vagueness about the single market significantly improved their result in June’s election, with Remain supporters considering the party to be their best hope for keeping closer ties with the EU. Indeed, more than 50 per cent of all voters who backed Remain gave their support to Labour in the snap election. This shows the challenge faced by pro-EU voters; Labour’s may have been ambiguous, but the Tories were viewed as tied to a hard Brexit.  

The challenge for Jeremy Corbyn is whether he can maintain the party’s position “on the fence” for the long-term. The outlook for this position isn’t good. Last week, former Labour MEP Michael Hindley wrote about the potential damage this stance could have on the party, arguing that the debate will become ever more pressing and informed as negotiations continue to be carried out. In the authors view, Corbyn should support remaining in the single market, it is largely where his party’s members stand and the recent election indicates that large swathes of voters do to.

Were Labour to commit to single market membership it is unlikely to change Government policy, but it could embolden remainers within the Conservative Party. Pro-EU Tories such as Nicky Morgan and Anna Soubry have shown a willingness to undermine No10 and break ranks with their wider party, with Soubry this week commenting that “Brexit ideologues risk plunging the country into a long economic nightmare”. The Labour Party should harness this soft Brexit momentum and use it to cement their commitment to remaining in the single market.

Grayling Team

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