Heidi Alexander and Alison McGovern: Labour needs to shift much further on single market

PUBLISHED: 16:54 30 August 2017 | UPDATED: 17:12 30 August 2017

Heidi Alexander (left) and Alison McGovern. Photos: PA

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Labour’s new Brexit policy is a step in the right direction - but doesn’t go far enough, say the party’s MPs Heidi Alexander and Alison McGovern.

Have you ever had that excited but exasperated feeling when your team’s so close to scoring yet can’t quite manage to get the ball in the back of the net? Strange as it may seem, that’s how we felt this weekend listening to news coverage of Labour’s developing Brexit policy.

There’s no doubt that Keir Starmer’s announcement on temporary single market and customs union membership should be welcomed. It has moved the Labour Party forward and offers the least worst, short-term answer for the British economy. It is consistent with both the outcome of last year’s referendum and the results of this summer’s General Election. And it opens up a political space for parliamentary damage limitation.

But it doesn’t achieve the ultimate goal: there is still much to be done if the Labour Party is to define a coherent long-term vision for the country.

Many sensible things have been said in the last few days. We need to avoid the cliff edge for the economy that would be associated with leaving the single market and customs union in two years’ time.

We need to do all we can to give certainty to British businesses who are currently negotiating contracts and investment deals. Why sign a new contract to supply goods to a European company if they are insisting you absorb the financial risk attached to any potential future tariffs when you don’t know what they might be? How do you plan for your staffing needs and support services if you don’t know what customs regime will be in place or whether you will now have to make customs declarations? The idea that David Davis, Boris Johnson and Liam Fox will be able to provide certainty on these issues in the next 18 months is fanciful.

The Labour Party is right to be on the side of businesses who are grappling with these questions and right to be on the side of employees whose jobs depend upon them. As the TUC’s Frances O’Grady has said, Labour’s announcement sets out a sensible and smart approach. It’s one which buys time and will give some protection for jobs and living standards. But in recognising the benefits of the single market and customs union for a limited transition period, it begs the question, what comes next? If it’s right for the economy in 2019, won’t it be right for the economy in 2025?

Some might argue that a focus on the single market and customs union for transition is simply a three-year delay to Hard Brexit, although it is significant that Starmer has been clear that all options should be kept on the table about the permanent arrangements which might follow.

As two MPs who have recently launched the Labour Campaign for the Single Market, we would argue that Labour should be unequivocal in making the case for continued and permanent single market and customs union membership. We believe that if we want our children to have decent jobs, if we want to protect the economy so we can tackle austerity, invest in public services, stop a race to the bottom across Europe and protect our rights, membership of the single market and customs union is a no-brainer. Yes, there may be trade-offs, but the prospect of queues outside the job centre in Liverpool or Lewisham is not one we are prepared to countenance.

Whilst the simplest way to stay in the single market and customs union would be to stay in the EU, the electoral and parliamentary realities in 2017 make this implausible. We are realists, we acknowledge the referendum result last year and we are engaged in the serious business of damage limitation. Parliament will hardly overturn the result of the referendum, so the next best option is to stay in the European Economic Area (EEA) and stay in a European Customs Union.

And it’s in Parliament over the next few months where much of this will be played out. The second reading of the Bill formerly known as the Great Repeal Bill takes place in September.

As presently drafted, ministers will have the power to determine when “exit day” is, when the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice ceases and when we stop being part of a whole range of regulatory bodies covering matters as diverse as aviation safety and medicines authorisations. The Bill also currently gives ministers the power to decide when the UK notifies other contracting parties to the EEA Agreement of the UK’s withdrawal from the single market.

David Davis should not be able to sit behind his desk in Whitehall and at a stroke of a pen determine whether the UK leaves the single market. That would be an affront to our democracy. This must be a decision for Parliament. If we can first win a vote on who decides whether we leave the single market, there is a chance we might then win a future vote on staying in it, be that for transition or more permanently.

All of this only works though if the Opposition is united and a small number of Conservative MPs vote with us. The fact that Labour has now put clear red water between ourselves and the Government on transitional arrangements means the fight in Parliament is on. It means the uneasiness of great swathes of the country with the direction that the Government is taking us on Brexit, as evidenced by the General Election result, can be reflected in votes in Westminster and it means we will have a proper debate about what Brexit looks like.

In response to Starmer’s comments this weekend, man of the people Nigel Farage took to Twitter to claim “the Great Brexit betrayal has become more complete”. When Farage is unhappy, you know you are doing something right.

With so many of the Leave promises having been exposed as deceitful mirages, Parliament must now behave responsibly to protect the national interest. The Labour Party, as the official opposition, has fired the starting gun for this process

As Brexit reality emerges, the need to go further will undoubtedly grow and the Labour Campaign for the Single Market will make that case.

  • Heidi Alexander is Labour MP for Lewisham East; Alison McGovern is Labour MP for Wirral South. To support their campaign, sign the petition at www.labour4singlemarket.org

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