Was Corbyn’s speech a bold Brexit vision, or playing politics? | Owen Jones, Giles Fraser, Katy Balls, David Shariatmadari and Faiza Shaheen

Five writers respond after Corbyn set out his plans for a UK-EU customs union

Owen Jones

Owen Jones: A clear contrast with the Tories

Who can argue with a straight face that there is no difference between Labour and the Tories on Brexit? Jeremy Corbyn’s speech set out plans for a “new comprehensive UK-EU customs union” on goods and trade: allowing tariff-free trade, and avoiding a hard border which would imperil a Northern Irish peace process that silenced the guns and the bombs. Britain would not leave EU agencies. There are caveats: refusing a deal that would leave Britain unable to have any say over future trade deals, or as passive rule takers. But Labour offers a clear contrast with a Tory plan to rip up any customs union – with no resolution of the Irish border question.

Most Labour MPs represent constituencies that voted leave but have a voter base that mostly voted for remain, and the party is afflicted by the “Hackney and Hull” dilemma: both Labour heartlands, but the former voted almost 80% for remain while almost 70% of the latter opted for Brexit. Labour has walked a tightrope and the leadership remains wary of any potential splits in the party’s electoral coalition, and so the speech focuses on “unity” between remain and leave supporters over domestic issues such as “better jobs, more investment, stronger rights and greater equality”. Too many remainers have failed to address the role a broken economic system played in leading Britain to this point.

There are Labour MPs with a genuine principled opposition to Brexit who believe an exit from the customs union and/or the single market will have terrible economic consequences. But there are undoubtedly others using Brexit as a way to attack a party leadership they do not support. Some making the case that Corbyn’s programme would be imperilled by Brexit do not, frankly, sign up to many of the policies anyway.

But now those who remained unreconciled to a Corbyn leadership after the 2017 turnaround are no longer able to argue that nothing separates Labour from the Tories when it comes to Britain’s relationship with the EU.

• Owen Jones is a Guardian columnist

Giles Fraser

Giles Fraser: Corbyn has bottled it

Brand Corbyn has just taken a bit of a hit. He built his reputation on being a man of principle, of sticking by what he thinks is right, irrespective of short-term political gain. But I guess the opportunity to make life even trickier for Theresa May is a temptation too far. And of course there is a good argument that seeking to bring the government down sooner rather than later is route A to the realisation of his beliefs.

But by giving in to the free marketeers on the customs union, a little of the Corbyn magic has been tarnished by the grubby trade of principle for power. It had to happen sometime, some will say. And maybe they are right.

But there is political danger here too, principle aside. Labour cannot afford to alienate that large part of its working class political base that remains extremely suspicious of Labour selling them out in favour of metropolitan liberals. And the prospect of the UK having to get our trade deals with the rest of the world agreed by the EU won’t feel like regaining our sovereignty to many.

The gap between old-style socialists and young liberals is now greater than ever within the Labour party. At stake in the debate over Brexit is the degree of comfort with which Labour embraces market forces as a necessary evil of the modern world. Some of us had hoped that Corbyn would be the one to put a stake through the heart of New Labour. But in the end he appears to have bottled it.

I liked what he had to say about immigration. We need to be a much more welcoming country to those in need. But on the question of trade, a very curious situation has arisen: Jeremy Corbyn is now more of a free (or “frictionless” as he prefers) trade warrior than our Conservative prime minister. Labour internationalism has been translated into the language of globalisation. These are strange days indeed.

• Giles Fraser is a parish priest and the author of the Guardian’s Loose canon series

Katy Balls: This spells trouble for Theresa May

Katy Balls

Corbyn’s Brexit speech will have made uncomfortable viewing in No 10. When the Labour leader made a cross-party appeal to MPs “prepared to put the people’s interests before ideological fantasies” and join Labour in “supporting the option of a new UK customs union with the EU, that would give us a say in future trade deals”, he would have no doubt had the likes of Anna Soubry, Sarah Wollaston and Antoinette Sandbach in mind.

Now there’s still something “cake and eat it” about this pitch. It’s not clear how much say Labour would want – or could even get – but the beauty of being Her Majesty’s Opposition means that this is type of the ambiguity it can get away with and the Tories can’t.

The problem for May is that there’s a vote on the horizon on this very issue. This speech suggests that Labour MPs will now be whipped to back Soubry’s amendment to the trade bill to ensure the UK forms a customs union with the EU, and it would only take a handful of Tories to join Soubry and Labour to defeat the government. It would be a humiliating blow to May, knocking away one of the central planks of her Brexit strategy and sending her into the negotiations with her hands tied.

The Conservatives are so worried about it that they’ve delayed the vote for several months. The current thinking in No 10 is that the best way to convince MPs of their argument is to make this vote into a confidence issue: to make them realise that the government will fall if they back this amendment. Are these Tories really prepared to risk Prime Minister Corbyn or a general election with their party in total disarray for the sake of “a customs union” with the EU?

The threat of Prime Minister Corbyn may be enough to prevent a sizeable rebellion. But either way, this custom Brexit pitch has just made May’s life a bit more difficult ahead of her speech on Friday.

• Katy Balls is the Spectator’s political correspondent

David Shariatmadari

David Shariatmadari: The best remainers could have hoped for

Corbyn’s speech set out a strong case for EU membership. He emphasised that, in an age of globalisation, the greatest challenges demand cross-border collaboration. “We can only tackle climate change, pollution and environmental degradation by working together and many of our closest allies in that struggle are in Europe.” He spoke of coming together to build a more peaceful world and clamping down on tax dodging.

For many of us, this kind of collective social endeavour is the EU’s raison d’etre. But given the result of the referendum, and his lifelong scepticism about the union as a trading bloc, the plan set out in the Labour leader’s address was about as remain-oriented as pro-Europeans could have hoped for. A particularly vivid example showed that Corbyn understood the chaos the absence of a customs union would cause. “A Mini will cross the Channel three times in a 2,000-mile journey before the finished car rolls off the production line,” he said, charting its course from Oxford to France to Warwickshire to Munich.

The idea that free trade agreements with non-EU members – “one of the central prizes of Brexit”, according to David Davis – would compensate for the disruption is absurd, and Corbyn said so. Perhaps he has seen this extraordinary chart from Bloomberg, which shows that even if we had a free trade agreement (FTA) with all other non-EU countries, but no deal with the EU, the hit to manufacturing exports would still be eye-watering. Perhaps – but then that chart also shows that remaining in the single market would be by far the best option.

If FTAs are a misty-eyed fantasy for many Tories, freedom from EU strictures over state aid plays the same role for the hard left. Corbyn is unlikely to abandon his belief that a Labour government could implement more of its economic plan outside the single market than in it, which gives the lie to his insistence that he wants to get “the best deal for people’s jobs, living standards and the economy”. But today he also showed flexibility on an important point. He said Labour wanted the option of “negotiating to support individual EU agencies, rather than paying more to duplicate those agencies here”.

This might seem like small print, but it’s vital. Don’t want air travel to become far more expensive? Then stay in the Aviation Safety Agency. Don’t want access to new medicines to be delayed after Brexit? Then stay within the ambit of the European Medicines Agency. If that means abiding by ECJ rules, so be it.

It may not be perfect – but Corbyn’s approach as set out today is streets ahead of the abject Conservative offer. Let’s hope he gets to implement it.

• David Shariatmadari is a Guardian editor and writer

Faiza Shaheen

Faiza Shaheen: Some much-needed pragmatism

Brexit discussions so far have been poor to say the least: chaotic and delusional, with no economic foundation. Today – 11 months since Brexit was triggered – Corbyn and the Labour party have finally provided some much-needed pragmatism.

With any negotiation you have to be clear about the end destination. Corbyn spent a lot of his speech detailing the desire for a more equal UK, arguing against privatising the NHS or undermining the Good Friday agreement and for ensuring workers and jobs are protected. Achieving this while respecting the EU referendum result means a customs union with the EU is the most attractive option on the table.

This is in sharp contrast with the Conservatives, who seem willing to compromise on all of the above, which can only mean a business model of divergence, deregulation and undercutting of EU standards. Turning away from our neighbours to trade more with others thousands of miles away, who will undoubtedly have demands of visas for their citizens and different standards on goods, is futile. The Conservatives that buy into this are living in a cross between La-La Land and colonial Britain.

Pragmatism rather than stubborn ideology could also be found from Corbyn on EU institutions. Why would we waste time, energy and money to duplicate institutions such as the EU chemicals agency? As long as we can still have a say in rules, what does it matter?

And here is where Labour has taken a gamble. What Corbyn laid out was a need for a bespoke deal, one that would include services and the ability to have a say on trade deals – the EU 27 may say this is a lot to ask. Ultimately though, at last we have a people-first approach without unworkable Conservative red lines. I know who I’d rather be negotiating with.

• Faiza Shaheen is an economist and the director of the Centre of Labour and Social Studies


Owen Jones, Giles Fraser, Katy Balls, David Shariatmadari and Faiza Shaheen

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Will Corbyn’s Brexit referendum strategy work? Our panel responds | Polly Toynbee and others
The Labour leader has set out his Brexit stall, vowing to remain neutral and give the people a final say. Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee and others respond

Polly Toynbee, Tom Kibasi, Giles Wilkes and Lisa Nandy

18, Sep, 2019 @12:15 PM

Article image
Theresa May’s Brexit speech: our writers give their verdict | Polly Toynbee, Katy Balls, Maya Goodfellow and John Redwood
The reaction to the prime minister’s latest Brexit plans, unveiled in London today, from Polly Toynbee, Katy Balls, Maya Goodfellow and John Redwood MP

Polly Toynbee, Katy Balls, Maya Goodfellow and John Redwood

02, Mar, 2018 @3:54 PM

Article image
Can Theresa May set out a viable Brexit vision? If not Labour is ready | Keir Starmer
The government has avoided the issue for too long and has no idea how to fix the Northern Ireland border problem. But we do, says Labour’s shadow secretary of state for exiting the EU, Keir Starmer

Keir Starmer

02, Mar, 2018 @9:13 AM

Article image
Corbyn’s conference speech: the verdict | the panel
Was this the address of a prime minister-in-waiting? Guardian writers respond to the most eagerly anticipated leader’s speech in years

Polly Toynbee, Matthew d'Ancona, Ellie Mae O'Hagan, Anne Perkins and Maurice Mcleod

27, Sep, 2017 @2:01 PM

Article image
May cannot lead on Brexit. Here’s Corbyn’s chance to seize the day | Jonathan Freedland
On Monday, the Labour leader must act like a prime minister, says Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland

Jonathan Freedland

23, Feb, 2018 @5:11 PM

Article image
How should this Brexit crisis be fixed? Our writers’ verdicts | Matthew d’Ancona and others
Matthew d’Ancona, Katy Balls, Aditya Chakrabortty and Gaby Hinsliff look at what should be done after a night of Westminster drama

Matthew d'Ancona, Katy Balls, Aditya Chakrabortty and Gaby Hinsliff

16, Jan, 2019 @8:49 AM

Article image
Jeremy Corbyn’s cosy Brexit pitch is a gamble. But he’s still beating May | Rafael Behr
Like the prime minister, Labour’s leader wants a ‘bespoke’ deal. But unlike her, he has room to manoeuvre, says the Guardian columnist Rafael Behr

Rafael Behr

26, Feb, 2018 @6:17 PM

Article image
Disagree with May’s Brexit deal? Fine, but be honest about the alternatives | Anand Menon
The prime minister’s plan has myriad flaws, but many critics are arguing for the impossible, says Anand Menon, director of the UK in a Changing Europe

Anand Menon

06, Dec, 2018 @4:23 PM

Article image
The Guardian view on May and Brexit: honesty is still an option | Editorial
Editorial: Following the myths of Eurosceptic ultras has never worked for Tory leaders. The prime minister could try governing for the whole country instead


28, Sep, 2018 @4:29 PM

Article image
What do Labour MPs think of the party’s shift on a second Brexit vote? | Lisa Nandy, David Lammy and Caroline Flint
Jeremy Corbyn’s backing for a ‘public vote’ appears to be a change in policy. Lisa Nandy, David Lammy and Caroline Flint give their verdict

Lisa Nandy, David Lammy and Caroline Flint

26, Feb, 2019 @1:28 PM