Richard Rawles analyses Labour’s various positions on Brexit, and ponders what could happen if the UK leadership – as it surely should – actually follows the wishes of the party membership as expressed at conference.


There is something of “Comical Ali” in the proclamations of Sunday’s deal in Brussels. Papers are signed, group photographs taken, speeches delivered — but everybody knows that the deal born yesterday is already dead.

It seems that large numbers of Tories will vote against it because it is not radically separatist enough; a smaller number for the opposite reason, because they realise that Brexit is a terrible idea and this deal likewise. The Lib Dems will (mostly) vote against because they are opposed to Brexit and the same is true of the SNP and Plaid Cymru. The DUP will vote against because it treats Northern Ireland slightly differently from the rest of the UK with regard to trading arrangements, which is unacceptable to them (whereas treating NI totally differently from the rest of the UK with regard to women’s rights over their bodies and the equal treatment of LGBT people is what they consistently demand).

And Labour MPs will also vote against. Why? Some because they want to destroy May’s government and think this might be a way to achieve this; some because they are opposed to Brexit in any case; some, presumably, because they believe that Jeremy Corbyn and/or Keir Starmer have an alternative plan with a reasonable chance of success (but what?). Kate Hoey, it seems, will vote against because the deal is not sufficiently damaging to peace in Ireland.

So, barring miracles, the deal will fail in Parliament. Then what will happen? Perhaps May will be sent back and try again, and come back with a superficially different deal; perhaps Parliament will fold out of fear of “no deal”; perhaps there will be a general election; perhaps there will be, for want of any alternative, a second referendum.

I would like to see a second referendum, have campaigned for one, and will continue to do so. I think public opinion is moving away from Brexit as its realities become more apparent and the deceitful fantasies of the Brexiters likewise. I also think that here in Scotland if there were a vote in Parliament on a second referendum and it failed due to lack of support from Labour the impact on Scottish Labour might be catastrophic. (How many of our Scottish MPs would be returned in a subsequent general election? Two? Three?)

The prospect of a second referendum seems to have attracted most attention at UK Labour’s recent conference, but it clearly went down like a cup of cold sick with Jeremy Corbyn and those close to him. John McDonnell tried to torpedo the idea before it was even passed by suggesting that it would not involve an option to remain. The leader suggested to a German magazine and to Channel 4 News that stopping Brexit was not an option. Diane Abbott, who had previously suggested in letters to constituents and others (myself included) that voters should get some kind of choice on the deal (Owen Smith was sacked for saying as much in public), has come out to pour cold water on the idea.

What are the alternatives? Is it possible, either via a general election or via a temporary ad hoc parliamentary coalition, for Labour to make an alternative deal? Let us suppose that it is possible (this is a thought experiment — it may be possible, but I think it is unlikely). What would Labour try to achieve?

So far, naturally enough (Labour is in opposition), Labour’s proposals have been less scrutinised than those of the government. There has been talk of “a” customs union, but one where perhaps the UK would still be able to make independent trade deals (doesn’t this mean “not a customs union”?), or perhaps simply would find a way to be in the room when the EU makes them. There has been talk of escaping state aid rules (and this was a reason why Labour MPs were whipped not to vote to remain in the single market) — is this consistent with our six tests, which ask for the “exact same benefits” of single market and customs union membership? I don’t think it is, but the proof of the pudding would be, I suppose, in the eating, and even if we could get an Article 50 extension for negotiation we probably do not have much time.

Less attention was paid to a different part of Labour’s conference motion on Brexit. “Conference believes we need a relationship with the EU that guarantees full participation in the Single Market.”

“Full participation”. What does this mean? Not, presumably, partial participation. Full participation. If taken seriously (and should conference motions not be taken seriously, in a democratic party?), this means quite a lot. Full participation in the single market means freedom of movement (we are not fully participating in the single market if everybody in the whole of the EU has the same right to apply for work in Paris or Florence or Rotterdam on a basis of equality, but where it is legal to discriminate against a British applicant — this is what freedom of movement is about, an integral part of the single market, not a price to be paid for access to it). It means continued full access to the whole EU market for our crucial services sector (vulnerable under May’s proposed deal), so important in cities like London, Edinburgh and Aberdeen. It might well protect important economic and cultural benefits like university funding and ERASMUS. It would mean that we would have to continue to follow state aid rules, as we have in the past (and as we did in our 2017 manifesto).

This was presumably acceptable to Keir Starmer, since he seems to have been happy with the compositing meeting that, over several hours, came up with the wording of the motion (where he was a participant). I cannot imagine that Jeremy Corbyn was particularly happy about it; Labour MPs had previously been whipped not to vote in favour of single market membership (even though this might reasonably have been thought of as the only way to achieve our six tests). Labour has seemed very reluctant to campaign for the benefits of freedom of movement. And left voices have expressed much dissatisfaction with the state aid rules, which might constrain some kinds of nationalisation policies for a future Labour government.

Compared with our present situation as a member state, the UK would cede considerable sovereignty to the EU. The single market rules we followed would be generated in meetings where we were not in the room. But this is now the policy of the Labour Party. So would the leadership act accordingly? If this happened, and if Labour were successful, Jeremy Corbyn might yet end up in a strange place. The man who saved Brexit, but also the man who neutralised much of its impact. Perhaps even the saviour of the establishment. Is this a role he wants to play?

I am somehow reminded of Mrs Thatcher’s two greatest (in my view) achievements, in a career so generally destructive: the Anglo-Irish agreement, which she is said to have come to dislike; and her contributions to the EU project, which she came to hate, including, to a large extent, the single market.

The Corbyn project is often said to be about the Bennite principle of a member-led party democracy. Would party democracy lead so far?