The Conservative Party have suggested that Labour’s policy on the single market is unclear.
But is that fair?
FactCheck looked at what the party has said since the EU referendum was called last year.
Ahead of the referendum
Like the Conservative leadership, Labour’s official stance ahead of last year’s referendum was that Britain should stay part of the EU.
Neither party gave many details about what their policy would be in the event of a vote for Brexit.
That said, there were MPs on both sides who went against their party leaders and voted Leave. In Labour, these included Gisela Stuart, who co-chaired the Vote Leave campaign, and backbench Labour veteran Dennis Skinner, who is seen as one of Mr Corbyn’s closest supporters.
Despite Labour’s official pro-remain stance, analysis from YouGov suggests that more than a third of the party’s supporters ended up voting to leave the EU.
However, supporters of other parties were also divided. 61 per cent of Tory supporters were in favour of Brexit, and even the Lib Dems – who have been among the most vocal supporters of the EU – saw nearly a third of their supporters voting to leave.
After the referendum
Labour’s official line has consistently been to respect the referendum result. Indeed, Mr Corbyn imposed a three-line whip on his MPs to vote in favour of triggering Article 50, which officially began the Brexit process.
But exact details of the type of Brexit that Labour wanted were still the subject of debate – particularly on the issue of the single market.
Earlier this year, the party offered more details on its Brexit policy in its election manifesto.
It said: “We will scrap the Conservatives’ Brexit White Paper and replace it with fresh negotiating priorities that have a strong emphasis on retaining the benefits of the Single Market and the Customs Union – which are essential for maintaining industries, jobs and businesses in Britain.”
Note that the wording here is ambiguous: “Benefits of the Single Market”, rather than “membership of the Single Market.”
The manifesto went on: “We will drop the Conservatives’ Great Repeal Bill, replacing it with an EU Rights and Protections Bill that will ensure there is no detrimental change to workers’ rights, equality law, consumer rights or environmental protections as a result of Brexit.”
After the General Election
Since the election in June this year, senior Labour figures have put forward various views on what post-Brexit Britain should look like. Here’s a timeline:
- 23 July: Negotiate access to the single market, but not membership
Jeremy Corbyn said that the UK would have to leave the single market because staying in it is “dependent on membership of the EU”. He said that instead, the UK should reach a trade agreement with the trading bloc that gives the UK the same benefits (i.e. tariff-free access). We FactChecked this claim at the time.
- 26 August: Retain single market membership during transition period
Sir Keir Starmer, the Shadow Brexit Secretary, argued that the UK should stay in single market during the post-Brexit transition period.
- 1 September: Retain single market membership permanently
Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson said the UK could stay in the single market “permanently” after Brexit.
- 11 September: Labour open to possibility of formal membership – but access is the most important thing
Jeremy Corbyn said that the possibility of retaining formal membership of the single market is “open for discussion”, but that what matters more is “outcome” and reaching a deal “which allows us to trade within the single market”.
- 12 September: UK should prioritise full access
Jeremy Corbyn called for UK to retain “full access” to the single market.
What does this mean?
It’s true that senior Labour figures have given slightly mixed messages on the single market. However, their position has remained broadly the same since the election.
The party has consistently focused on securing access to, and the benefits of, the single market. Where they have been less consistent is on whether, to achieve this, Britain needs to retain full membership of the single market or not.
The single market is a thorny issue in its own right. It’s made even more contentious because it is closely linked with Britain’s future immigration policy – which itself was a key battleground in the EU referendum.
Mr Corbyn has suggested there should be tighter controls on immigration after Brexit. He has said that immigration should be “a managed thing on the basis of the skills required”.
At first glance, this seems to contradict the principles of the single market as it currently operates because it ensures the right to freedom of movement. It’s not clear whether these two things are reconcilable.