Heading to no: Labour and the single market, redux

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about Chuka Umunna's pro-single market amendment to the Queen's Speech, the conclusion of which was that Chuka hadn't given even a moment's thought to what a strategy for stopping or softening Brexit would look like. But my frustration at Labour moderates being unstrategic is starting to give way to pessimism about the chances of stopping a version of departure from the EU which - it's as true today as it was during the referendum campaign - would be terrible for everything progressives care about. Labour's infighting dynamics are heading in a very bad direction.

First things first. Hard Brexit - which, no, it doesn't really mean anything, but I'm just going to use it as shorthand for leaving the single market - would quite likely trigger an immediate recession. That would strain welfare spending, and increase the deficit and debt in a way that makes a return of austerity politics much more likely. It would almost certainly lead to slower long-run growth that means fewer people employed on lower wages, and less tax revenue to support the welfare state. You don't have to be apocalyptic about Brexit to think that it would be very bad for left-wing priorities. If it's possible to avoid an exit from the single market, that's a goal that the Labour Party should be seriously working towards.
That doesn't mean being unproductively gung-ho and fighting obviously losing battles, as Umunna decided to. But it does mean bearing in mind that this is a target and thinking seriously about opportunities to achieve it. The immediate response from the left of the party to Chuka's manoeuvring, and other calls for Labour to adopt an explicitly anti-Brexit or pro-single market stance, has been that it'd be pointless and ineffective to do that now. "We can stop it, we will oppose it, but not yet" has become a pretty standard line.

It's true. But this looks worryingly like the early stages of single market strategy becoming a major dividing line in Labour's internal spats. For Momentum types, there's a growing distrust of any call for pro-EU action. Brexit was the pretence for Owen Smith's leadership challenge last year; Chuka deliberately used it to put the leadership in a difficult position; Tony Blair wrote a long article about Brexit and then gratuitously inserted some hits on Corbyn into it. It's easy to see "not yet", and the accusation that Europhiles are primarily trying to bring down the leader, becoming a reflexive response - and easy to understand why it'd be that way. Meanwhile, as it calcifies, Corbyn supporters - for whom, in many cases, the EU referendum was one of their earliest and most passionate engagements with politics - are gradually consoling themselves with the thought that there might not be a recession, that the Tories might not be able to use Brexit to dismantle social protections, that nationalisation would be easier.

On the other side of the table, Labour moderates - including a lot who used to be in the genuine-concerns, end-free-movement crowd - are growing ever-keener on fighting for soft Brexit. They feel, correctly, that it's an important left-wing goal; they perceive it's an issue where the membership actually prefers their underlying position to Corbyn's; and the fact that people on the left of the party who are usually idealists are now defending pure triangulation makes them suspect bad faith. The alignment of those three things is making it steadily more likely that moderates will push Brexit-related issues to the fore.

Like all the worst political dynamics, this is only going to pick up steam. To the extent that Corbynites, in part, really are opposing calls for Brexit action not on the merits but because they come from moderates who they don't trust, the moderates are right. And to the extent that this is part of moderates' motivation for talking about the EU, Corbynites are right and their distrust is partly justified. As people go on saying and doing things for these kinds of internal-politicking reasons, each side's complaint against the other will become more and more justified. Moderates will be less and less likely to pitch their pro-single market arguments in a way that's conciliatory and not aimed at shifting the party's balance of power back to the centre. Corbynites will be less and less likely to admit that "not yet" has run out.

Chuka and Blair will eventually be right. There is not a lot of time before Brexit happens. A successful push to stay in the single market will have to include, and probably be spearheaded by, the Labour Party, and it almost certainly needs to happen in the next twelve months. For reasons I explained in the New Statesman, it's now pretty unlikely that there'll be an early election, which means that there's no other pressing political goal that softening the blow of Brexit should be subordinated to. People across the party need to start thinking much more consciously about how their statements and actions will play out in the party and the country and how that will make a catastrophic hard Brexit more or less likely. That goes especially for the moderates, who are still guilty of more explicit and harmful missteps. But unless everyone starts actively working to lower the temperature, this is going to be a hopeless party stalemate until it's too late.

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