Perhaps the biggest talking point to come out of the Labour Conference in Brighton this week was the failure to debate Brexit. The motions that didn’t make the ballot sought to achieve two things – tie the Labour Party to indefinitely remaining in the Single Market and Customs Union (through EEA membership), and permanently commit the party to freedom of movement.
The way in which these motions were kept from the ballot was somewhat controversial, but I am not here to engage in yet another round of Progress/Momentum bloodletting. Instead, I’d like to explain why it is in fact for the best that those items did not reach the conference floor. I take on that challenge from my position of European Coordinator for York Labour. One argument that you won’t hear me make is the current clarion call of the far left that Single Market rules prevent Labour from actioning their economic policies. Research in the journal Renewal has debunked that argument – it is nothing more than code for latent Euroscepticism. However, on the point of the Single Market and Customs Union, it is clear that indefinite membership is not currently in the national interest. There is no point simply accepting EU rules and directives with no influence over the making of them. That is why Labour’s current policy, seeking a custom-made deal during the transitional period of EEA membership, is perfect for now.
Additionally, indefinitely remaining in the Single Market and Customs Union is basically continued EU membership. We would still have to respect the four Freedoms (of goods, capital, services and labour) which can be seen as an attempt to undermine the results of the referendum. Remainers would see no issue with EEA membership. But for many leavers, such a policy would be testament to treason in their eyes and therefore be politically toxic.
Moving onto the point of freedom of movement, I completely support it in principle. I want nothing more than to make this country welcoming to those who wish to come here, irrespective of whether their decision is made for economic reasons. But unfortunately, public opinion is yet to be swayed, so it would be ruinous for Labour to commit to upholding the system as it stands. Now there is scope for reform within the rules – making workers register on arrival in the UK, and enforcing the so-called “three month rule”, giving EU citizens three months to find work or prove they can support themselves in their new country of residence. It is perhaps not something that I would personally wish for, but it is a way in which Labour can seek com promise between their principles and the concerns of the electorate.
Furthermore, the freedom of movement system as it currently stands is unfit for purpose. I remain firm in my belief that we would be better as a nation staying in the EU and fighting to reform it. But ast hat isn’t happening, I believe it would be better take this opportunity to advocate for reforming the freedom of movement rules: not in the way that closed-minded, little Englanders want, but in a way that improves protections for workers and prevents continent-wide social dumping – ultimately a progressive position.
My views may go against the beliefs of the majority of those who voted to remain. However, while I believe in the value of EU membership, I also take the view that simply aping the state of affairs that existed prior to the referendum is just as undesirable as Brexit itself.