26 Feb 2018

Corbyn backs customs union

After weeks of pressure from trade unions and some Labour MPs on the front and back benches, Jeremy Corbyn has conceded the U.K. under a Labour government would seek to join a customs union that looked a lot like the customs union we are already in as members.

Jeremy Corbyn said Britain must be able to have “a say” or “a meaningful say” in trade agreements that the EU27 negotiate with third countries. What does that mean?

I asked Barry Gardiner, Shadow International Trade Secretary, whose job seemed to be disappearing in front of our eyes as Mr Corbyn spoke. Not so, Mr Gardiner said. The UK would be a “full and equal member” of a customs agreement with the EU. When I suggested everything we’d ever heard from the EU suggested they wouldn’t go near that, Mr Gardiner said nobody could know that as nobody had put this specific proposal to the EU.

Jeremy Corbyn said he hoped to make the EU hold to human rights clauses that often get written into trade agreements and then get over-looked and unenforced. It’s not clear how a U.K. outside the EU would be able to lean on EU27 governments to do anything of the sort. Mr Corbyn said he wanted the U.K. to be heard in EU trade treaty negotiations with other third party countries but it’s not clear that the EU would ever consider more than a right to be consulted. I asked if he acknowledged he was giving up on a right to vote and veto trade agreements. He said he wanted to “negotiate and consult and influence” the EU27.

Mr Corbyn himself mocked the Tories for playing politics and taking 20 months to come up with their Chequers compromise position on Brexit. I asked him why it had taken him 20 months to come up with his Customs Union position and whether it had something to do with the political opportunity presenting itself to defeat the government. He said that was “a really strange question” and he’d simply “thought it would be helpful if, as the second stage of the negotiations gets under way, we set out (our) views.”

I put it to Keir Starmer that some in Labour think he’s been gently leading Labour’s leadership by the hand to a much softer Brexit. He said all policy movement had been agreed. But his tone is different from the leader’s. Sir Keir openly proclaims that Labour needs to end up much closer to the EU and you wonder just what price Labour would be willing to pay for the much closer relationship to the Single Market he is toying with.

Some who attended the Shadow Cabinet “awayday” last week (it was neither away nor much more than 3 and a half hours long and half of that was a polling presentation) thought there was going to be some fresh polling to stress test the new Brexit policy before Labour dived in with a new policy.With Theresa May’s speech coming up at the end of this week, the leadership seem to have decided to jump in anyway.

Talking to some in Coventry, where the vote was 56/44 in favour of Brexit, you heard some visceral pushback against anything that means being closer to the EU. The Labour leadership is hoping that the promise of other conditions around its own negotiating stance (demanding protections for state aid, for instance) will give Labour MPs and candidates in pro-Leave areas enough cover to defend the party’s softer line.

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