Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell say Labour will negotiate a free trade agreement outside the EU single market. Maybe yes, maybe no say Barry Gardner, shadow secretary for international trade and Keir Starmer, shadow Brexit secretary, the following day. It all depends on the negotiations you see.
Their positions are separated by degrees of unreality. Corbyn and McDonnell envisage a free trade agreement that gives us the equivalent of the single market, Gardner and Starmer think the EU might throw in single market membership as well. And why not? If the EU were going to concede a free trade agreement that gives Britain pretty much what we have now, why let a formality like membership get in the way?
All four are making an ambitious pitch for a bespoke agreement that retains as much “access” to the single market as possible, in-or-out, members or not. None of them are saying what that they will give in return on free movement, EU law and the jurisdiction of EU courts, and contributions to the EU budget. And all might, like Theresa May, say we can’t possibly say anything about that because it would ‘reveal our negotiating hand’.
This is absurd. And undemocratic. The British negotiating position can’t simply be a wish-list. Negotiators can’t return from Brussels after two years of posturing at home to reveal the things they have conceded to reach whatever agreement they manage to come to. There will be consequences if they do. Instead Labour should talk straight to people, at least about the boundaries of possible agreement, and invite public debate as if the public themselves were participants. And that is the point. Not everyone can be around the table but they must be participants.