‘Release our secret weapon: Neil Kinnock’ is perhaps not a sentence to inspire confidence, but Progress-led Labour rebels seem to increasingly fancy their chances of pushing European Economic Area (EEA) membership — the ‘Norway model’ of post-Brexit single market membership. Gathering activists, MPs, Lords, and representatives of the SDLP (Labour’s Northern Irish sister party) the ‘Labour Campaign for the Single Market’ seeks to push support for single market membership on two fronts: in the Commons, and among Labour Party activists.
Though economic arguments were presented at their recent event at Parliament, these have largely fallen upon deaf ears both before and after the referendum. Their new strategy reflects this reality and has two prongs: Ireland, and Socialism.
In the Commons, Progress are appealing to national unity, and the preservation of the Union to buoy support. Claire Hanna — an SDLP Legislative Assembly Member, argued that there was no workable solution for Northern Ireland other than an open border:
‘In the worst days of The Troubles it wasn’t possible with tens of thousands of soldiers to secure the border’.
She also derided the proposal of an automated border:
‘If a camera gets knocked down, a guard goes up, and there are still those advocates of physical violence who would shoot that guard’.
Just how important these issues are to the preservation of the peace appears to be finally seeping into the mainland public consciousness; though Lord Kinnock rued Britain’s collective memory with ‘how they can remember Dunkirk, but forget Armagh is beyond me’. The rebels have been buoyed both by the House of Lords sending EU withdrawal legislation back to the House and asking them to aim for EEA membership — and therefore retain single market membership. They’re also encouraged by recent comments from Shadow Minister Paul Blomfield that ‘nothing is off the table’ in regards to negotiations, and Diane Abbott who said ‘we haven’t ruled out supporting (the EEA)’. Though eventually rebuked by Corbyn, there is either confusion over policy, or significant support in the Shadow Cabinet for membership.
Progress are also trying to target Labour activists and put Brexit policy on the Labour Party Conference agenda, launching LabourSay.EU to that end. The emphasis here was firmly on making an appeal to committed socialists, framing it with the appropriate language as an issue that should they fail, would disproportionately hurt the poor. There was discernible tension over the lack of discussion within Labour over Brexit policy, with Alice McGovern MP saying she ‘never wants to go to another party conference where we don’t talk about Brexit’.
The most probable outcome for Brexit still seems a convoluted middle ground customs deal from the government that garners some Labour support, but ignores the most extreme wings of the Conservative Party. For the rebels to win, they’d have to pull off a stunning defeat of Corbyn — either going against him or bringing him round to supporting EEA membership. They would also have to pull in a modest level of Conservative support. This would be no small feat, with the campaign being fronted by Chuka Umunna and Alice McGovern — who are not exactly beloved by Labour’s hard left. Even Neil Kinnock, though a sincere and dedicated socialist, is a longtime internal opponent of Corbyn and his mentor Tony Benn, and may therefore struggle to influence the discourse.
They’d also have to face down the full fury of the right-wing press, that has had no qualms labelling judges ‘enemies of the people’ for affirming Parliament’s right to legislate on Brexit, and risk rehabilitating the divides between Labour activists, and fiercely anti-EU voters in the Labour heartlands.
Their chances of success seem unlikely. But their strategy is well conceived; good organisation and luck to back it up might just see them succeed.