Shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry has dismissed calls for Labour members to have a greater say on the party’s Brexit policy, saying it would be “very difficult” to remain in the single market.
More than 16,000 people have emailed Labour over the past five days, urging the party to consult members on Brexit after MPs said the topic was being ignored by its most senior policy body.
The emails are being examined by the party’s national policy forum, which is meeting this weekend in Leeds, and whose members include the shadow cabinet and trade union leaders.
Polls have shown that an overwhelming majority of Labour members and supporters support Britain remaining in the customs union and single market after leaving the EU.
But speaking to ITV’s Peston on Sunday this morning, Ms Thornberry insisted that members were being consulted, but remaining in the single market would be “very difficult” as Labour wanted “managed migration when it comes to immigration.”
Asked by host Robert Peston why, on issues such as Syria, Labour members had been consulted on their views, they had not been on the party’s Brexit policy, Ms Thornberry said: “Oh, but they do.
“We’ve got the national policy forum going on at the moment. I was there yesterday and [Sir] Keir [Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary] is there today, and this afternoon we have, I think, the longest session is going to be on Brexit, so there will be a debate in the national policy forum at that point.
“Unlike the Tories, we do consult our members when it comes to developing our policy.
“It’s an ongoing conversation that we have, you know, within the party and… Brexit kind of impacts all sorts of different areas of policy and yesterday I was talking about development and about the development goals and we were talking about how Brexit impacts on that.
“I mean, it comes up in all different types of facets and this afternoon we’re talking about in particular our six tests on Brexit, what it is we want to achieve as a result of the Brexit negotiations and we’ll be asking members for their collective knowledge and their collective experience to feed into that.”
Labour’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has been a longtime champion of a greater role for party members in decision-making
Asked by Mr Peston about Labour members and supporters’ overwhelming desire to remain in the single market and customs union, Ms Thornberry appeared to rule out the former while suggesting Britain could remain in something which “probably looks very much like the customs union at the moment”.
She said: “What we do is we accept the result of the referendum – we have to leave the European Union. If we’re leaving the European Union then we have to negotiate an ongoing relationship with the European Union.
“We’ve looked at it, and we cannot see a way forward when it comes to Northern Ireland or to tariff-free trade across Europe without us being in some form of customs union that probably looks very much like the customs union at the moment.
— Peston on Sunday (@pestononsunday) February 18, 2018
“And that’s, you know, that’s our position on that. As for the single market, you know and I know that it’s very difficult for us to remain in the single market as it currently is because nobody can pretend that the referendum didn’t include a debate on immigration and we want to have fair rules and managed migration when it comes to immigration, so we need to negotiate something.”
Asked if Labour could support an arrangement similar to that of Norway – which is not a member state of the EU but is closely associated with it through its membership in the European Economic Area, the shadow foreign secretary said the party wanted “a deal which is in accordance with the six tests which Keir laid out and which are in our manifesto and which all Labour MPs signed up to when they stood for election”.
She added: “We have to leave the European Union, but we have to have a deal which looks after jobs and looks after the economy first and foremost. Nobody voted to be poorer and nobody voted to lose their job.”
Last week Richard Angell, the director of Labour’s centrist pressure group Progress – seen by Mr Corbyn’s supporters as Blairite – said that a policy of remaining in the single market would be the best move by the leader to unite all Labour members across the political spectrum as well as in leading trade unions.
In a piece for Progress magazine, Mr Angell said single market membership ‘unites all in the Labour party but the smallest Bennite tendency in the shadow cabinet and leader’s office’.
He said: ‘The only option for an anti-austerity party is to stay in the single market and customs union.
“The Labour membership already knows it, but the Labour leadership has yet to come to the same conclusion. It must, soon.’