Does John McDonnell even know what his Brexit strategy is?

McDonnell with Corbyn at the Labour conference: the men are starting to outline a plan on Brexit
McDonnell with Corbyn at the Labour conference: the men are starting to outline a plan on Brexit
Ian Dunt By

There were signs this weekend that Labour was about to finally take a stand on Brexit.

For the first time, Jeremy Corbyn spoke out against the consequences of a hard Brexit on northern working class communities. The interview, on Andrew Marr, provided the first bit of evidence that he might actually be prepared to demand membership of the single market and try to stop the right-wing, free market reboot of the UK that such an event would entail.

There were more details this morning from shadow chancellor John McDonnell and shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry, who promised to maintain EU funding for deprived UK communities past the 2020 point the Conservatives have signed up to. All good stuff.

But then McDonnell stood up to make his speech and it was clear that the Labour leadership either has no plan or is not willing to share it.


Everyone talks in code over Brexit, but even on code deciphering duty it’s impossible to figure out what McDonnell is really proposing.

He said:

“Since the Brexit vote, the Tories have come up with no plan whatsoever. They have no clue. Half of them want a hard Brexit, to walk away from 30 years of investment in our relationship with Europe.  Some are just paralysed by the scale of the mess they created. Working with our socialist and social democratic colleagues across Europe, our aim is to create a new Europe which builds upon the benefits of the EU but tackles the perceived disbenefits.”

His comment that the Tories plan to “walk away from 30 years of investment in our relationship with Europe” and the negative reference to a ‘hard Brexit’ suggests he wants to stay in the single market. That is where most of the policies on workers’ rights McDonnell mentions in the speech - like the working time directive - are found. But then he says:

“I set out Labour’s red lines on the Brexit negotiations a few days after the vote. Let's get it straight, we have to protect jobs here. So we will seek to preserve access to the single market for goods and services.”

‘Access’ is an unhelpful phrase when it comes to discussing the single market. It could mean anything. It could mean simply sending goods to it, in which case every country on earth has access to the single market. It could mean a trade deal which for instance gets rid of tariffs and non-tariff barriers if you trade with it. It’s not clear. But people typically say ‘access’ when they’re trying not to mention membership. Or else, you know, why not just say membership? So it now appears McDonnell does not want to maintain single market membership.

There are a couple of reasons why that might be the case. Firstly, the current rhetoric from Europe suggests we will not be allowed to have single market membership if we choose to get rid of freedom of movement, as most now believe is necessary to abide by the Brexit mandate. In all likelihood, the European approach will be more nuanced in talks, but that is the current message. Perhaps McDonnell accepts that is the case and believes leaving the single market is now inevitable, as many others do.

Or perhaps he still ascribes to the view, long held in hard left circles, that the single market is a barrier to the implementation of socialism because of restrictions on state aid. But then, it was telling that in his Today programme interview this morning, McDonnell pointed out that other EU member states, like France, are pretty happy to just go ahead and break those rules. He doesn’t seem quite as wedded to the hard-left critique of the single market as Corbyn is.

Then McDonnell addressed the freedom of movement point directly. Kind of. He said:

“Today, access to the single market requires freedom of movement of labour. But we will address the concerns that people have raised in the undercutting of wages and conditions, and the pressure on local public services.”

That’s a very interesting statement. For a start he says ‘access’ requires freedom of movement, whereas in reality membership does. So perhaps this distinction is meaningless when it comes to his statements.

He does not say freedom of movement needs to be scrapped or even reformed, but instead he goes back to Ed Miliband’s old left-wing answer to concerns about immigration: address the effect on wages and services. These are domestic responses, which governments could do regardless of freedom of movement. This suggests that McDonnell wants us to retain single market membership and then put in a concerted effort at home to deal with the practical complaints of working class voters anxious about the influx of new arrivals.

So the firmest conclusion you can come to is that McDonnell will fight for retaining membership of the single market, but he is not prepared to say so quite in those terms.

Is there any point to this analysis? Possibly not. Maybe McDonnell isn’t even aware of the seeming contradictions in his speech, or the way the codes he’s using can’t be decoded in any useful way. Maybe this is equivalent to Corbyn demanding we trigger Article 50 the day after the referendum: he just doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

But I suspect that he is aware. McDonnell is smart. Probably he thinks saying “access” as opposed to “membership” keeps Labour’s policy options open, but that specifying membership would be a more restrictive position.

If so, it’s not enough. Labour supporters urgently need a more thorough strategy than this.

Brexit is, at its heart, a problem about capacity and time. We have hardly any negotiators or trade experts to call on. With this limited capacity, we must unpick 40 years of UK/EU law, which itself will take about a decade; sort out a free trade agreement with the EU, which will take about seven years; and lay the ground for a return to WTO trading by extracting our goods and services schedules from those of the EU, which will also take several years.

The timetable Europe offers is two years. And that is why we will experience a hard chaotic Brexit in 2019 unless something changes. That means that workers’ rights are out the window, environmental protections are out the window, all the hard-fought for achievements of the left are out the window. The single market rules which protect them will be gone. And the incentive in trade talks will be for a reduction in standards across the board. That will coincide with a return of tariff and non-tariff barriers, both of which will hit manufacturing hard. Britain will become poorer and its poorest communities will get hit first.

The way to prevent this is to clearly and explicitly and robustly campaign for single market membership. At the very least McDonnell and Corbyn should be campaigning for an interim EEA deal which keeps us in the single market for the next ten years while we sort out our trade arrangements, firm up our legal standards and prevent damage to financial service revenue and manufacturing. That delivers on Brexit but protects working class communities.

But that would require a plan, a firm, clear plan for Labour to hammer the Tories with. And despite their repeated criticism of the Tories for not having one, it does not appear that Labour really has one either. And if they do, they’re not willing to share it.

This is standard operating procedure for the Corbyn era: Fine words, but scratch the surface and there’s not much there.

It’s not the time for fine words. It’s time for Corbyn and McDonnell to say exactly what they’re doing to prevent a hard Brexit hammering the poor. 

Ian Dunt is editor of Politics.co.uk

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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