Labour has performed a dramatic Brexit policy shift announcing the UK should stay in the single market and customs union during any transitional period after the March 2019 deadline.
Shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer announced a Labour government would abide by ‘the same basic terms’ of Britain’s current EU membership during the transition, which some observers expect to last as long as four or five years.
Writing in The Observer, he made clear that the party is open to the possibility of negotiating new single market and customs union terms which the UK could sign up to on a permanent basis.
At June’s general election, Labour promised to seek to ‘retain the benefits’ of the single market and customs union as part of a ‘jobs-first’ Brexit, but leader Jeremy Corbyn has so far stopped short of committing to continued membership beyond the date of Brexit.
He is coming under pressure from some parts of the party to adopt a more pro-EU stance, with a new group backed by former shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander and Wirral South MP Alison McGovern calling for a policy of ‘unequivocal’ support for membership of the single market, customs union and European Economic Area.
Sir Keir said that the Tory position, set out by Chancellor Philip Hammond and International Trade Secretary Liam Fox, of taking the UK outside the single market and customs union for the transition period would be ‘unnecessary and a highly risky path to take’.
The shadow Brexit secretary wrote: ‘Labour would seek a transitional deal that maintains the same basic terms that we currently enjoy with the EU. That means we would seek to remain in a customs union with the EU and within the single market during this period. It means we would abide by the common rules of both.’
And he added: ‘We will always put jobs and the economy first. That means remaining in a form of customs union with the EU is a possible end destination for Labour, but that must be subject to negotiations.
‘It also means that Labour is flexible as to whether the benefits of the single market are best retained by negotiating a new single market relationship or by working up from a bespoke trade deal.’
Welcoming Sir Keir’s announcement, TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said: ‘Labour are clearly the grown-ups in the room. This is a sensible and reasonable approach to take. Sticking with our current deal during the transition will give working people certainty on their jobs and rights at work.
‘Keeping all options on the table is the best negotiating strategy. The Government were wrong to rule out staying in the single market – it’s time for them to reverse gear.’
And Labour MP Chuka Umunna, a leading supporter of the Open Britain campaign against a hard Brexit, said: ‘This is a most welcome announcement and a significant moment in the Brexit debate so far.
‘A jobs-first Brexit is only possible through continued British membership of the single market and customs union.
‘This will rightly pile the pressure on the Government to put membership of the single market and the customs union at the heart of their negotiating strategy. Anything else will be bad news for our economy, jobs, public services and social justice.’
Responding to Sir Keir’s announcement, Labour peer and former minister Lord Adonis said on Twitter: ‘Chances of staying in the EU just rose to nearly 50%. Rejoice, rejoice!’
It comes after Labour’s Clive Lewis – who supports Jeremy Corbyn but has called for Labour to take a more robust stance on Brexit – told The New European podcast he believed a Hard Brexit would not happen because of his party’s new strength after the general election.