Labour and trade unions increasingly moving to supporting Single Market membership

By Ian Richardson

Both wings of the labour movement are increasing their opposition to Tory plans to quit the EU Single Market – a move that would lead to the loss of huge numbers of jobs and a general decline in living standards as inflation from the devaluation of the pound cut real wages. The political background is the increasingly acrimonious negotiations with the EU as government bluster about the claimed benefits of leaving the Single Market are exposed.

Crucially, union concern over significant job losses is growing. In response TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said that political parties must “put jobs, rights and livelihoods first. We have set out our tests for the Brexit deal working people need. Staying in the single market union and customs union would do it.”

The TUC general council (containing all the main unions) has issued a statement saying that, “we believe in keeping all options on the table and ruling nothing out.” It identified three key points; defending and maintain workers’ rights and matching any EU advance in those rights, preserving tariff-free, barrier-free, frictionless trade with the rest of Europe to protect jobs, and ensuring that trade and livelihoods in Gibraltar and Ireland are protected. The general council also said, “At present we should not rule out unrestricted access to the single market through continued membership outside the EU as this meets our tests.”

Steve Turner, assistant general secretary of UNITE is widely quoted as saying, “Right now…we’d need to be convinced of a better option than continuing our membership of the single market outside the European Union”, which neatly summarises the current majority of trade union leadership thinking. No better option has been advanced.

Jeremy Corbyn has used the same approach in an interview with the BBC. He argued that Labour’s priority remains jobs and living standards and that membership of the Single Market was not ruled out if this was necessary to defend them.

These are not ideological positions, but based on evidence. If it is clear that jobs will be lost and living standards lowered by leaving the Single Market, then the unions and the Labour Party are determined to oppose that, and will accept membership of the Single Market to defend the interests of the working class.

The key to defending living standards in Britain is to elect a Corbyn led Labour government. But that government itself must have economic policies which defend living standards.

It is unavoidable that leaving the Single Market under current circumstances would hurt jobs and living standards. Investment would be reduced. Markets would be cut due to tariffs into Britain’s largest market. Large employers would also be certain to try to make workers pay for reduced access to the Single Market and/or increased tariffs. They would attempt to compensate for higher tariff costs with lower pay. They welcome the current fall in real pay following the post-referendum fall in the pound as it boosts profits. If the non-tariff barriers are too onerous, or the tariffs too large to gouge out of workers, businesses will simply relocate operations. This is why Jeremy Corbyn has been entirely correct, from the point of view of defending living standards, to make the fundamental issue avoiding Britain facing tariff and other barriers to the Single Market. This is not a ‘sell-out’ by Corbyn, as some on the left have wrongly judged, it is a necessary part of a Corbyn government defending living standards. Without such policies a Corbyn government, in present conditions, will not be able to defend jobs and living standards.

In addition to these fundamental economic issues the Tories are, of course, also turning the policies screw. They are using using the EU Withdrawal Bill to further undermine workers’ rights. The Shadow Cabinet and Parliamentary Labour Party was absolutely correct to oppose the Bill and should oppose it at every stage given its anti-democratic, anti-worker character. In the event, despite much support calling for a rebellion against Corbyn’s position from the Tory press and BBC, just seven Labour MPs voted for the Tory anti-working class Bill.

The debate on the Single Market, customs union, Freedom of Movement and many other issues will continue. It will also continue among Corbyn supporters. But the Labour Party and trade unions have clearly set jobs, living standards and workers’ rights as the overriding priorities, and are increasingly united in opposing any move out of the Single Market that threatens these.

Jeremy Corbyn is committed to ending austerity and attacks on living standards. The increasing unity between trade unions and Labour on opposing moves out of the Single Market, which in present circumstances would mean loss of jobs and reduction in living standards, with wider support within the broad labour movement for Jeremy Corbyn’s position, is therefore highly welcome.