LABOUR announced yesterday that it would keep Britain in the EU single market and customs union with continued freedom of movement during a “transition period” after 2019.
In a move agreed with leader Jeremy Corbyn, shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer also indicated that the party is ready to negotiate new single market and customs union terms on a permanent basis if concessions are made on issues such as the free movement of labour.
Labour’s seeming U-turn was welcomed by the TUC. Its general secretary Frances O’Grady said it would give working people certainty over their jobs and rights.
It would also show that Labour are the “grown-ups in the room” on Europe, she added.
Britain’s biggest union Unite also welcomed the move. General secretary Len McCluskey said workers would welcome the fact Labour had “got their backs” and said access to the single market would protect thousands of jobs.
The change comes on the eve of the third round of formal Brexit talks in Brussels.
A new group backed by former shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander and Wirral South MP Alison McGovern had called for a Labour policy of “unequivocal” support for membership of the single market, customs union and European Economic Area (EEA).
Critics warned there would be a backlash from the majority of voters in last year’s referendum who opted to leave the EU.
A spokesman for the Labour Leave movement said: “Seven out of 10 Labour constituencies voted Leave. Single market membership is EU membership in all but name.”
Membership of the single market could prevent the implementation of Labour’s June manifesto on issues including expanded public ownership and state aid to industry.
Conservative ministers have accepted the need for a time-limited transition period to put in place a new UK-EU relationship following the Article 50 deadline of March 29 2019.
They insist that the UK must be outside the single market and customs union during this period – which observers expect to last two to four years — allowing it to control migration and agree new trade deals with non-EU countries around the world.
Labour put no time-frame on the transition, but Sir Keir said it would be “as short as possible, but as long as is necessary” and would be time-limited in order to prevent it becoming “a kind of neverending purgatory”.