Jeremy Corbyn and the driverless trade policy

Jeremy Corbyn and the driverless trade policy

Today Jeremy Corbyn finally confirmed, in his own words, that Labour wants a customs union with the EU.

Making his pitch in front of a driverless car, Corbyn said Labour would negotiate “a new comprehensive UK-EU customs union” to prevent tariffs and a hard border in Northern Ireland.

In other words, Labour’s Britain would be a passenger, letting the likes of Jean-Claude Juncker and Michel Barnier drive our policy on trade.

But Corbyn also said Labour wouldn’t accept a deal that left the UK “a passive recipient of rules”. He said any deal struck by Labour would need to ensure the UK has a say in future trade deals.

It’s a difficult road for Corbyn. The Labour leader was speaking in Coventry, a Labour heartland which voted 55% Leave. Geoffrey Robinson MP, who represents Coventry North West, saw almost 59% of his constituents backing Brexit last year.

But the City’s three MPs, all Labour, voted Remain.

The Labour leadership are using the indefinite article: ‘A customs union’, because it’s a new agreement they want, not a rollover of the existing trading framework. This makes political sense. Corbyn can promise the hard Remainers in his party that he’s keeping close alignment with the EU, whilst dousing any criticism that it won’t work with the phrase ‘we will negotiate’.

It doesn’t matter if the plan is unworkable. Because happily for Corbyn, he doesn’t have to negotiate. That is why he can promise a deal with all the perceived benefits of the current arrangement with added Labour goodies.

Today Corbyn announced he would block any trade deal struck by the EU which included public services, like the NHS, in competition with ‘Trump’s America’. Labour would block a revived TTIP, ban chlorinated chicken and manage to keep all existing rights, standards and protections. This would be difficult for any independent nation, an amazing feat when you consider our negotiators would be the likes of Juncker and Barnier.

One person at the launch was the shadow International Trade secretary, Barry Gardiner. The MP for Brent North used to back the idea of making our own trade policy, writing in the Guardian last year that the idea of staying in the customs union was ‘deeply unattractive’, stopping us from signing deals with our five largest export markets outside the EU. He also says the EU might sign a deal with the US which could mean an unfavourable deal for the UK in which we would be “obliged to accept American produce with no guarantee of reciprocal access for our own goods into the US.”

Gardiner has since been persuaded to recant, and now fully endorses a policy which would demote his position to an advisory role within the EU framework.

Labour’s new policy would also rule out the UK taking action on steel dumping, or anti-competitive state subsidies which could put UK factories out of business. It also contradicts Labour’s Manifesto which said they will work with other WTO members to end dumping of state-subsidised goods on UK markets. And it’s something Labour’s Union backers have called for.

Up until now Labour has got by with creative ambiguity on Brexit. But it won’t be long before people realise ‘a’ customs union is a fantasy that cannot be achieved. Brexiteers are consistent in saying we must leave the customs union, including any perceived benefit, in order to take back control of trade policy. Corbyn is playing a dangerous game if he thinks he can have both.