Labour: vote against Article 50!

Author: 

Martin Thomas

Theresa May has at last (on 17 January) made one thing about her Brexit: she plans to pull Britain out of the European single market, because staying in requires freedom of movement for workers.

The “single market” (and Margaret Thatcher was one of the main figures in pushing it through) means that the same regulations about safety, labelling, and standards apply across the whole market. Factories anywhere in it producing in line with local rules know they can sell everywhere in it without further checking or paperwork. May was not clear on whether she also wants to pull Britain out of the EU customs union.

Norway is in the single market but not the customs union, meaning that Norway decides its own tariffs on non-EU imports, but Norwegian exporters can sell freely in the EU as long as they can show that their stuff is sufficiently Norwegian-produced (i.e. not just imports relabelled). Turkey is in the customs union but not the single market, so Turkish exports enter the EU tariff-free but require checks on safety, labelling, and standards, but Turkey has to apply the EU’s regulations on non-EU imports.

Labour should be taking its stand on freedom of movement — on defending the right of EU workers to come to Britain, and the right of British people to work, study, or retire with near-citizen rights anywhere in Europe. The Labour leadership has retreated to a stand in favour of staying in the single market. On freedom of movement it has retreated to hinting that it would back freedom as part of a package with the single market.

An opinion poll published in November 2016 showed that an amazing 90% of voters want to stay in the single market. When the pollsters asked voters whether they’d accept losing the single market in order to stop free movement, or go for the single market with free movement, the split was about 50-50. There’s a solid base for Labour to win a majority for a single-market-plus-free-movement package.

However, in his first response to May’s 17 January speech, Labour front-bench spokesperson Keir Starmer seemed to retreat from Labour’s previous insistence on staying in the single market to a line of support for staying in the customs union. And the Labour leadership has also said that it plans to vote for May’s motion to Article 50 even if Labour fails (as it will) to pass amendments in Parliament.

Yet the 23 June vote creates no democratic obligation on Labour to support May’s version of Brexit. Labour should take a stand in defence of existing freedoms of movement — and for keeping economic barriers suppressed, too — and vote against Article 50.