Labour may be close to endorsing remaining in the EU customs union. We will know tomorrow. If it does many - including the vast majority in the business community will be relieved. And, if Labour then sides with Tory rebels on this issue, the government could be defeated and a softer Brexit than they intend could be delivered as the will of parliament, which is wholly consistent with the referendum result. For many, including those in Ireland to whom I referred yesterday, this will be a step in the right direction.
But there are those who know that this playing with trade conditions is incomprehensible to many. As my long term collaborator in the Green New Deal, Colin Hines, put it in a post on Brave New Europe recently:
Labour’s concentration on the effects on trade of leaving the EU drips with the minutiae of the Custom’s Union and Single Market and as such is incomprehensible to the majority.
Colin, with whom despite our friendship, I do not always agree, goes further:
Its time Labour abandoned these public stances and instead publicly embraced a No Brexit approach.
I do not think that possible without a second referendum. Where I do agree with Colin is that to make any change possible Labour has to tackle the issue that staying close to the EU necessarily requires be confronted, which is migration. As Colin says:
[S]uch pleas have no chance of electoral success unless also included is a rethink of the freedom of movement of people, the issue so often skirted around. This in turn will require eliciting help from those in Europe who don’t want the UK to leave. Putting some limits to the free movement of people would anyway be popular in much of Europe, as it would allow each member state to limit the flow of people to the number which it really needs.
[T]he plausibility of such an approach came from Richard Corbett MEP, leader of the Labour Party in the European Parliament. He has made clear that when it comes to EU freedom of movement, this is not an unconditional right. There are conditions that Britain could start enforcing if it chose, such as the need for EU migrants to have a job after a reasonable period of time, normally considered to be three months, or be self-sufficient and not a burden on the public exchequer. His contention is that other EU Member States ask thousands of people to leave their country every year. It is Britain’s failure to use such safeguards to the full and, where appropriate, send back those with no right to remain, which has created the impression that free movement is a free-for-all.
Another example previously cited in Brave New Europe is the European Commission’s recent tightening of its rules on access to social security. It has said that member states may decide not to grant social benefits to mobile citizens who are economically inactive, meaning those who are not working nor actively looking for a job, and do not have the legal right of residence on their territory. The EU Commission’s vice-president Jyrki Katainen has talked of understanding the “unwanted consequences” of freedom of movement.
Few on the left like to address this issue. Indeed, Colin has been banned from the New Economics Foundation organised NEON network for simply raising the issue, which I think absurd, because the fact is that there are concerns on migration; they did motivate the choice of many in the Brexit; the UK has always had a migration policy; there have always been conditions attached to migration; and deciding how to address this issue has then to be part of informed political debate.
I have no desire to see people who have long contributed to the UK expelled from this country as it seems our current government does now. That is the pathway to massive social injustice. On the other hand there is no right to free movement in the EU that carries with it a right to claim the benefits of citizenship in any country in which a person decides to reside. There is only a right to work wherever a person chooses, and that is something very different, but which (as has so often been the case) has been improperly administered by the UK making it systems much more open to abuse than they need be.
I suspect Colin is right: I think there would be an appetite to look at this issue in Europe. Planned migration is essential for well being. That has to be said loud and clear. But the word 'planned' is a key part in that statement and it's entirely appropriate, and wholly consistent with long term actual left of centre practice, to say so.
Labour needs to embrace the customs union.
But it has to also make clear it embraces people's concerns. It can do that and stay firmly within the EU's boundaries. It'c challenge is to find a way to communicate that possibility now. It's relevance may be dependent upon its ability to do so.