Jeremy Corbyn appeared to pour cold water on demand from Labour members to back membership of the single market, suggesting it could hinder his plans to nationalise the railways.
More than 40 senior Labour figures, including 30 MPs, have signed an open letter in the Observer today urging the leadership to commit to remaining in the EU single market and customs union after the UK leaves the EU.
The party, whose annual conference begins in Brighton today, has already said it would keep the UK in both agreements during a transitional period.
But Mr Corbyn, while promising to listen to the calls, appeared today to oppose them, warning that single market rules impinged on states’ ability to intervene in industry.
He told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Programme that, while he backed “tariff-free access” to the single market, Labour needed “to look very carefully at the terms of any trade relationship, because at the moment we are part of the single market, obviously.
“That has within it restrictions on state aid and state spending. That has pressures on it, through the European Union, to privatise rail, for example, and other services.
“I think we have to be quite careful about the powers we need as national governments.”
He also said that single market rules prevented the government from trying to save the SSI steel works in Redcar, North Yorkshire, after the Thai firm announced plans to close in September 2015, although Labour did not say this at the time.
Asked how long any transition period would be, he said it should last ‘as long as necessary’.
Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell echoed Mr Corbyn’s views on ITV’s Peston on Sunday programme but hinted there was a possibility of reform to the single market.
He told presenter Robert Peston: “Our view is that the single market, at the moment, in terms of the referendum… it’s difficult to see how we can maintain within with all the four freedoms that need to be guaranteed.
“However, you know, we’re talking to our European colleagues what reforms can take place, how you can achieve a relationship which receives the benefits of a single market.
“So I think we’re moving on in these discussions.”
In their open letter the MPs and senior Labour figures, including former shadow cabinet members Heidi Alexander and Chuka Umunna, say it is ‘unsustainable to say we are an anti-austerity party’ while being in favour of leaving the single market and customs union.
They say: ‘So at our conference this week, Labour should commit to staying in the single market and customs union – ruling out no options for how to achieve this – and to working with sister parties and others across Europe to improve workers’ rights, boost trade union membership and put an end to the exploitation of workers, not freedom of movement.
‘This would send a powerful message of solidarity to the rest of Europe, and to the millions of EU and UK nationals living in limbo here and across the continent.’
Mr Corbyn received a hero’s welcome when he arrived at the conference venue today, with crowds chanting “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn”.