Labour has faced criticism for its apparently confused approach to Brexit.

Indeed, a recent poll by YouGov suggests that even people who plan to vote Labour at the next election are unsure of the party’s position.

Nearly a quarter said they thought Labour was completely against Brexit, a third thought the party was on the fence, and a tenth said they didn’t know.

Are the party’s senior figures to blame for the apparent confusion? FactCheck takes a look what they’ve said on the biggest Brexit issues.

Immigration and freedom of movement

Labour’s 2017 manifesto stated that “Freedom of movement will end when we leave the European Union. Britain’s immigration system will change.”

In July, Jeremy Corbyn said that immigration “would be a managed thing on the basis of the skills required… What there wouldn’t be is whole-scale importation of underpaid workers from central Europe in order to destroy conditions, particularly in the construction industries.”

Later in the summer, the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, said “We’ve always defended freedom of movement in principle; but [it] cannot be on the basis that it undermines standards of living in this country – and therefore we address that issue in a practical way.”

Talking to Andrew Marr in December, the shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer went slightly further than his colleagues, agreeing that Labour’s preferred approach is “easy movement if not free.” He said: “The end of free movement doesn’t mean no movement. Of course we would want people to come from the EU to work here, we would want people who are here to go to work in the EU.”

FactCheck verdict

Labour has been fairly consistent on immigration. Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell seem wary of full freedom of movement because they believe it negatively affects wages and conditions, but both emphasise the need for some managed migration.

The shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, is perhaps the only figure deviating from this narrative – his emphasis is on easy movement post-Brexit.

Single market membership

Immediately after the election, John McDonnell said “I think people will interpret membership of the single market as not respecting that referendum.” This was consistent with Labour’s manifesto, which promised to retain the “benefits or the single market and the customs union” without being a member of either.

But that same summer, Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson said that staying in the single market and the customs union “might be a permanent outcome of the negotiations” even beyond the transition period – appearing to contradict the shadow chancellor and his party’s official position.

In September, Mr Watson doubled down, saying that “if the European Union wanted to talk about reform of freedom of movement rules [single market membership] could be thrown into the mix.”

And in a further twist, in December, John McDonnell appeared to backtrack on his earlier certainty, suggesting that the UK could stay part of a “reformed single market” and must keep “all options on the table.”

On the very same day, Keir Starmer reiterated the party’s official line that “we want a partnership that retains the benefits of the single market and the customs union.”

At the beginning of this year, Jeremy Corbyn insisted that Britain cannot remain in the single market.

FactCheck verdict

Labour have struggled to keep a consistent line on single market membership. Before and immediately after the election, they were clear that the UK would have to leave the single market. But by the autumn, senior figures – including the deputy leader – had begun to undermine that clarity by suggesting single market membership could continue indefinitely beyond the transition period.

Indeed, John McDonnell – who previously said that staying in the single market would be seen as “not respecting” the referendum result – seems to have done a personal 180-degree turn, suggesting that single market membership is not off the table.

Paying for access to EU markets

Another thorny issue facing Labour is whether the UK would pay to access the single market and/or customs union.

In October, the shadow Brexit minister, Jenny Chapman, said that as well as leaving the single market option “on the table”, there may be “an arrangement that’s in the UK’s best interests that involves some sort of payment for access.”

This was echoed in December by Keir Starmer, who agreed that he’d like a “Norway-style treaty for the 21st century” (Andrew Marr’s words) and that as a result, “there may have to be payments to be negotiated.”

But in January 2018, John McDonnell said “I don’t understand why we would have to pay” for access to the single market.

FactCheck verdict

Labour frontbenchers have put across two different views on paying to access EU markets after Brexit in recent months. The shadow Brexit minister Jenny Chapman, and her boss, Keir Starmer, have both suggested that it might be in the UK’s best interest to pay for access to EU markets after Brexit.

John McDonnell says he can’t understand why that would be necessary.

Second referendum

Tom Watson said in September that the party was “not ruling it out, but it’s highly unlikely.”

In November, it emerged that the shadow home secretary, Diane Abbott, might want to go further. In letters to two constituents, she said that she “will argue for the right of the electorate to vote on any deal that is finally agreed.” But when challenged by the Guardian, she said the comments were “poorly worded.”

In December, Jeremy Corbyn said “We’ve not made any decision on a second referendum.” But in January this year, he seemed to have settled the issue: “We are not supporting or calling for a second referendum… what we’ve called for is a meaningful vote in Parliament.”

However, this apparent certainty didn’t last long. On the same day, Emily Thornberry suggested that a second referendum wasn’t completely ruled out: “As for a second referendum, if 90 percent of the population was now saying ‘we must stay in the European Union and we must not leave’ that would be a challenge for all of us who democrats.”

Although she added that “at the moment, and as things currently stand, we proceed in good faith, we do as we are instructed and we are leaving the European Union.”

FactCheck verdict

We know that Labour are not currently calling for a second referendum on EU membership or on the terms of a Brexit deal. But we’ve had mixed messages from senior frontbenchers and Jeremy Corbyn himself on whether a referendum might be possible in the future.


Update 5.30pm: we contacted Labour for comment before publishing this article. They’ve now got back to us, and this is what they’ve said.

Immigration and freedom of movement after Brexit: “After we leave the EU and at the end of a time-limited transitional phase, existing freedom of movement rules will end. We will replace it with a new system based on fair rules and the reasonable management of migration that puts the interests of our economy first.”

Single market membership: “Our top priority is securing the benefits of the Single Market and putting jobs and living standards first. The Single Market is not a membership club, so as we leave the EU, we will need to negotiate a new arrangement that retains the benefits of the Single Market, which will either be a new relationship with the Single Market or a bespoke trade deal.”

Payments to the EU: “After we leave the EU, we will no longer be paying into the EU Budget as if we were a member state. Instead, we will negotiate proportionate payments to agencies and programmes where we consider it to be in the national interest and value for taxpayers’ money.”

Second referendum: “A second referendum is not our policy and wasn’t in our manifesto. Labour has always insisted that Parliament has a meaningful vote on the final Brexit deal.”