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Labour's Brexit policy

Labour’s Brexit policy is actually fairly sensible: re-negotiate a rather different deal to that promoted by Boris Johnson, and then put it to a referendum in the summer of 2020, with the option of remaining in the EU also on the ballot.

The deal Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn proposes would essentially see the UK accept a new customs union with the European Union, one sufficient at least to lead to no physical border for goods in Northern Ireland.

It would also involve some form of very close and ‘dynamic’ alignment with the EU’s single market regulations, which would keep Britain shadowing the bloc’s rules – in some ways, a form of ‘Norway plus’, in which Britain would be half in and half out of the EU.

Leaving aside the question of whether such a settlement would be a good idea, and the fact that this would mean the UK would be left accepting rules over which it had little say, these plans would at least work and could be negotiated fairly quickly.

They would mean that Northern Ireland left the EU on exactly the same basis as Great Britain, so there would be no need for complex regulations on trade across the Irish Sea.

And there would very few trade barriers at all on the island of Ireland. So far, so good.

Thereafter, doubts begin to creep in – and are creeping into the minds of the public, too. For one thing, Labour’s timetable is almost certainly too optimistic.

They want to reach a new deal within three months of coming to power, and hold a new plebiscite within six months.

Those targets will almost certainly slip, pushed back by the difficulties inherent in forming and managing a minority administration.

Granted, all Labour need to do ‘get a new deal’ is amend some text in the political declaration, not the long and legally-binding Withdrawal Agreement that Johnson and Theresa May have laboriously assembled.

But it will take longer than Labour thinks to hold another referendum – a minimum of 22 weeks according to UCL’s Constitution Unit, very likely taking us into the autumn of 2020 if we exclude the summer holidays.

Even more time will be lost if Labour wants to negotiate some form of compromise on the free movement of people, and here we come to the nub of Labour’s policy problem.

Because if Labour means all of its tacking and turning to end in some form of ‘Norway plus’, they are going to have to deal with the vexed question of immigration.

If they meant all along to ape the European Economic Area, all will be well: if they were actually seeking yet another bespoke deal, things will get choppy.

Labour want to avoid committing themselves to the simple, clear ‘free movement of people’ that looks very much like (and is) an electoral trap set for them by the Conservatives.

Perhaps, they reason, something like the ‘shared market’ imagined by the think tank the Institute for Public Policy Research could be created.

An emergency brake on migrant numbers could be created; industry-by-industry permit quotas might be permissible, as in Lichtenstein; or a ‘local preference’ for employing British workers could be requested, as in Switzerland.

The problem with these ideas is that Britain is not tiny Lichtenstein or direct-democracy-loving Switzerland.

The EU has also got very, very tired of the Swiss model, and will be impatient with anything like the ‘managed migration’ to which shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry has recently alluded – to everyone’s confusion after the Labour conference, and subsequent briefings, pointed towards a free movement policy.

There’s a political problem here too, even more difficult for Labour to manage.

The party is digging itself deeper and deeper into the invidious position where it looks like a Leave party to Remainers, and a Remain party to Leavers.

In the last YouGov voting intention poll we have, Labour is attracting less than half of those who voted Remain in 2016 (43%), without holding on to more than a miserable 9% of Leavers.

The Conservatives, by contrast, have succeeded much more clearly in uniting Leavers. Two-thirds of them back Johnson’s party, an advantage that could even grow as the Conservatives squeeze the Brexit Party vote further.

That’s a problem in a polarised world where cultural adherence to one of the Brexit ‘tribes’ trumps party allegiance.

YouGov recently asked people how they thought of themselves. 23% said ‘Labour’, but 41% said ‘Leaver’ and 45% said ‘Remainer’.

24% of Labour voters identified strongly with the party, but 62% of Leavers felt strongly attached to that position, along with 58% of Remainers.

A second referendum pitting a Labour deal against Remain makes mechanical sense.

It avoids no deal. It allows the public to look again now the reality of Brexit is clear. It holds Labour together, allowing Corbyn as at least a euro-agnostic to move on to topics closer to his heart.

But the spectre of what to do about free movement remains at the feast. And the reality is that Leave and Remain have become signifiers of identity rather than questions of mere policy.

Labour may pay a heavy electoral cost for trying to uphold a balance between the two.

All that said, the situation is not entirely lost.

A special conference would decide Labour’s attitude in a second referendum campaign, and that would probably unite the party.

A repeat of the tragi-comic scenes at the last Labour conference, where members’ clear desire for a stronger Remain stance were thwarted by the leadership, is inconceivable.

Labour – judged by its voter base, at least – is overwhelmingly a Remain party: any further and obvious defiance of that will could tear the party apart.

Remain also leads in the polls, by 53% to 47%, on average.

That lead might be a little bigger if the alternative was a Labour deal, no doubt damned by Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage, and many Leavers refused to vote at all.

Labour in power could easily unite around a Remain stance, win the referendum and then carry on to put at least some of its ambitious domestic plans into practice.

All of that is definitely possible.

But as Labour tries aggressively to squeeze the Liberal Democrat vote further, as it hums and haws about free movement, as its actual identity as a pro-European party remains as well-defined as a squiggle, it looks like there are a lot of barriers in the way.

Labour can still come out of this unscathed, but the odds are mounting against them.

By Glen O’Hara, Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at Oxford Brookes University.

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