Saving the single market

Dear Labour MPs

The referendum result is a terrible tragedy, but I understand the people have spoken. I am not asking for a second vote unless voters actually want one, which they clearly don’t now. I accept we have to try and make the best of Brexit. But we shouldn’t just let its most hardline advocates define our future. I am horrified that so many Labour MPs who campaigned to remain are saying an end to free movement of EEA nationals must now be a red line.

Most of you campaigned for Remain – so you know the EU means what it says about the single market’s four freedoms being indivisible, because you travelled the country saying so. But to reiterate: Brussels is not bluffing. The European project relies on common rules for common benefits. Conceding that principle sets a dangerous precedent for the future – throw your toys out of the pram, walk away from your neighbours and reap the rewards. It would be a tragedy of the commons on a continental scale.

Some of you talk about an ‘ambitious negotiating strategy’ to try and square the circle. Yes, other EU countries face challenges too: the threat from Marine Le Pen, Angela Merkel’s difficulties with the refugee crisis, Matteo Renzi’s upcoming constitutional referendum. But offering Britain some sweetheart deal would make their electoral troubles worse, not better. Polling clearly shows their voters do not want us to get any such deal. Some mainstream politicians have talked about greater border controls on entering the passport-free Schengen Area or even longer-term ones within it, but curtailing or ending EEA free movement rights is a distinct issue. Renzi has said an end to free movement won’t happen. Whatever changes Sarkozy puts forward for Schengen, he’s not challenging EEA nationals’ rights (and no French mainstream candidate will go further than him).

Some might point to the fact that, technically, EU free movement is on a different legal basis from the models the EFTA countries apply. The EEA countries have slightly different rules on free movement – essentially, EU citizenship is not a relevant concept and the right is (technically) free movement of workers rather than people. If Switzerland’s compromise on ‘local preference’ in hiring gets consent from Brussels (far from guaranteed), perhaps we could secure something similar to effectively stay in the single market in goods (though not in services). The Swiss model would harm a country as dependent on service exports as Britain. Either approach keeps free movement – and selling tweaks as radical changes failed dismally in the referendum. In the end, you only put off the evil day when we have to choose: do we accept the single market’s rules or not?

If Britain insists on ending free movement, therefore, we will make our way out of the single market. That will damage working people’s incomes, jobs and communities far more than immigration ever could. The evidence simply does not support the idea that immigration depresses wages overall. At worst, it may have a small effect on some low wages – though even then, it mainly seems to affect other migrants rather than British workers. Of course, if you’re on the breadline, a small change has a big effect. But the lost jobs and tax revenue (and guess whose tax credits or public services will be cut to make up for that?) from hard Brexit will dwarf any notional gain in wages.

To be clear: this is not about metropolitan liberals refusing to listen to anyone outside the M25. I understand you want to meet voters halfway on immigration. And yes, we probably have relied on low-paid labour from elsewhere too much and for too long. You can talk more about training our own people. You can ask why we don’t pay enough for British people to do more of these jobs. You can say tackling both of these could reduce immigration and slow the pace of change. You can spell out that people feel that their society changed too fast without their being asked. You can use plainer English to talk about the issue – metropolitan liberals should stop insisting that you tie yourselves in linguistic knots whenever it comes up.

But there is a difference between doing all that and staying quiet while the Tory Right sells us snake oil. It won’t appease people in the end anyway. What do you think will happen if Britain marches to hard Brexit and the country ceases to be a gateway to the world’s largest single market? Do you think angry voters will be less angry once investors go? Once Nissan leaves Sunderland? When people find themselves without work? What will Labour say to them then?

You are the Official Opposition. I realise fulfilling that role is much harder with our current leadership. But you are still the second largest bloc of MPs, and you can put pressure on a Government with a small majority in perilous times. Theresa May could well be held hostage by those Conservative MPs for whom no level of anti-European zealotry would ever be enough. Labour MPs need to press her to minimise the damage Brexit does, not encourage her to maximise it.

Yes, the referendum result mandates some form of Brexit. But all of us, not just some of the 52%, should have a say as we decide what form we choose. Please reconsider, for all our sakes.

Best wishes
Douglas Dowell

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