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Getting to yes: Labour & the single market

The current story of the Labour Party in the UK is an ongoing, baffling reversal of factional roles. Jeremy Corbyn's wing of the party has always been criticised, above all, for lacking political realism. The Blairite contingent was famed for its hard-nosed strategising and ability to get things done in an electorally successful way, even if not quite the things Labour would get done in an 'ideal world'. But for the last year and a half moderates in the Labour Party have been making move after move that reveal either a shockingly deep level of incompetence at strategic thinking or a principled refusal to engage with it at all.

The most notable example was last summer's attempted leadership coup, in which the parliamentary party voted no-confidence in Corbyn and dozens of shadow ministers resigned from his frontbench. The goal of this was to remove Corbyn as leader but if you'd thought about for even sixty seconds it was totally clear that this was not going to work. As I put it at the time:
This pickle, to be clear, is entirely of anti-Corbyn MPs' own making. I'm sympathetic to their complaints. But that Jeremy Corbyn is both stubborn and a firm believer in internal party democracy, and that he has a huge grassroots organisation of loyal supporters, were things everyone already knew beforehand. It should have been clear to everyone that the attempt to force his resignation would be swatted away as the underhanded move it demonstrably was, and that the result would be a divisive leadership contest and an irreparable debacle.
Well, it's July again, and people are losing their heads. This time Chuka Umunna brought an amendment to the Queen's Speech (which outlines the government's legislative programme) calling for continued membership of the single market.

There's a lot of background to this, but the basic question to ask is: why? One line being thrown around - basically because it's the kind of thing Corbyn used to say a lot - is that it's important to vote for what you believe in, not just the party line, and many Labour MPs believe that keeping single market membership is absolutely urgent. An initial problem here is that it's not clear Chuka Umunna does believe this. That aside: what did not happen here is that a vote on single market membership came up and Chuka and his merry band felt compelled to vote for what they believed in. Labour moderates voluntarily brought the vote. So: why?

At the risk of repeating myself: it should have been clear to everyone that the leadership was not going to whip in favour of this amendment. Corbyn is personally quite anti-EU and others in his circle are more aggressively so. There was an election three weeks ago, and in the campaign Labour's manifesto committed to leaving the single market.  The Tories, meanwhile, are not united on Brexit but were never going to vote for an opposition amendment to the Queen's Speech - functionally a confidence vote - on an issue this touchy. The upshot is that the entirely foreseeable consequences of moving this amendment were:

  • The amendment would not pass, and so have no impact on Brexit policy
  • Labour would have a public rebellion on the first day of parliamentary votes
Why? Apparently Umunna got a standing ovation at his constituency party meeting this week, which is lovely for him, but clearly not worth the cost. Newspaper coverage the day after was half dedicated to Labour's divisions over Brexit, instead of focusing on the Conservatives voting down a pay increase for nurses and caving over abortions in Northern Ireland.

Maybe you want to say: forget what the leadership was obviously going to do, I care about what they should have done - the amendment wouldn't have passed even if Labour whipped in its favour, so there still wouldn't have been any point to this exercise.

At some point the Labour Party will need to come back to confronting Brexit. The Tories' 2010-2016 austerity involved cuts to government spending of about 4% of GDP. If leaving the EU causes a recession and then lower subsequent growth, public expenditure will fall by an equivalent amount even if the government commits to keep spending at the same rate (currently 42.1% of GDP). Some Conservatives used to talk the need for deep cuts in spending to make the country competitive outside the EU, but the austerity threat of Brexit is not primarily that: it's that the country will be poorer and will just have less ability to spend on public services. This is what it means to say that avoiding a hard Brexit is the key to real anti-austerity politics. And it means revisiting Labour's stance on the customs union and free movement, which at last month's election was plainly a fudge.

But this needs to be played cleverly. It looks increasingly likely that there won't be a general election before Brexit, so even uniting the Labour Party against leaving the single market can't be the goal. Pro-European Tories need to be split off from the government position as well. That was obviously never going to happen on Queen's Speech day. It can happen, but it will only happen if MPs feel empowered to defy Theresa May and the government, and that's more likely to the extent that the government is on the ropes.

That means that shutting your mouth about the single market - at least on days that would otherwise be dominated by bad news for the Conservatives - is not just a way of improving Labour's chances at power. It's also the best way of undermining the Prime Minister's authority over her MPs, creating the conditions for a rebellion of pro-European Conservatives, and actually cobbling together a majority for single market membership.

Of course that could all be totally wrong. But it's at least a strategic theory about how to get to the soft-Brexit end result everybody involved here wants. There just isn't any theory about how bringing an amendment that was doomed to be voted down and divide the party was going to achieve anything. And yet these, somehow, are the self-proclaimed political hardheads of the Labour Party.