By Dave Sewell
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Corbyn can’t afford a muddle on Brexit

This article is over 4 years, 6 months old
Issue 2564
Labours Barry Gardiner disagrees with his shadow cabinet colleague Keir Starmer
Labour’s Barry Gardiner disagrees with his shadow cabinet colleague Keir Starmer (Pic: Wikimedia Commons/Rwendland)

Politicians who tied themselves in knots over whether to leave the European Union (EU) are finding the question of how to leave just as uncomfortable.

No wonder. The EU is a sprawling bureaucracy of overlapping institutions woven into four decades of domestic law. Untangling it is a big job and, more importantly, it raises dilemmas linked to all the issues that divide both main parties. Socialists have much to say on these issues—and much to agree on, however we voted in the referendum.

Defend migrants, not the European Union
Defend migrants, not the European Union
  Read More

We can say good riddance, for example, to Euratom, the toxic nuclear lobby’s European wing. We can defend the small amount of EU regulations that defend workers’ rights and in particular migrants’ rights. We can oppose keeping those—the majority—that entrench the rule of profit.

But for most politicians the challenge is the reverse, and far messier. How can they hold on to enough of the EU cartel to reassure business while still acting “tough” on it, particularly where immigration is concerned?

Suddenly the hard Brexiteers of the Tory right, Liam Fox and Michael Gove, spent last weekend explaining that there’s no rush to leave after all. After leaving the EU in 2019, they said, Britain could keep with some interim arrangement until 2022. They are reflecting demands from big business.

Meanwhile Labour shadow ministers set about debating over whether or not to leave the EU’s customs union of tariff-free internal trade. Jeremy Corbyn said “we haven’t jumped on either side of that fence”.

Shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer wants it kept on the table for the sake of business. But shadow international trade secretary Barry Gardiner pointed out that this would make Britain subject to EU rules without having a say on them.

The Labour right, some Tories, and much of the press are muddying the waters further. They are trying to defend the EU’s single market, and cynically polarise the whole debate around it.

But the single market is built on four very different “freedoms”—one for migrant workers and three for bosses.


Treating them as a single lump involves astonishing cynicism. The same politicians who call for restricting EU immigration within the single market then try to harness the solidarity with EU migrants to a defence of the single market.

Corbyn tried to navigate this quagmire on the Andrew Marr show last Sunday. Rightly, he insisted on leaving the single market, a body “inextricable” from the EU. To his credit he called for better guarantees for EU migrants in Britain, and refused to call for more border controls.

Instead he attacked exploitative agencies. He appeared to pledge to end the rules that allow companies to pay workers based in one country the pay rates of another.

This is another of the single market’s “freedoms”. It upholds discrimination against migrant workers, and it’s right to scrap it.

Unfortunately Corbyn’s phrasing was ambiguous at best.

He slammed “the wholesale importation of underpaid workers from central Europe” and said agencies that advertise abroad would have to “advertise in the locality first”.

It sounded like he was trying to find a way to reassure both existing migrants and people who accept racist myths.

The problem with underpaid migrants isn’t that they are migrants but that they are underpaid. The solution is to guarantee one rate for the job, wherever workers come from.

Corbyn’s comments blurred that distinction, pandering to the myth that migration brings down pay instead of challenging it.

And they played into the hands of the pro-EU right, allowing the New Statesman magazine to paint Corbyn’s move against the single market as “Ukippy”.

It shouldn’t be this hard. When even Gove says freedom of movement should stay temporarily after Brexit, Corbyn should insist that it’s permanent.

This doesn’t mean making any concessions on the EU’s undemocratic and pro-business rules. But it does require clarity in the defence of migrant workers—something that, despite Corbyn’s leadership, Labour still struggles with.

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