Jeremy Corbyn and Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary, are facing a backlash from senior MPs in Labour’s traditional heartlands after announcing a dramatic shift in party policy to back continued membership of the EU single market beyond March 2019.
In a move that positions it decisively as the party of “soft Brexit”, Labour told the Observer that it would support full participation in the single market and customs union during a lengthy “transitional period” that it believes could last between two and four years after the day of departure.
This would mean that, under a Labour government, the UK would continue to abide by the EU’s free movement rules, accept the jurisdiction of the European court of justice on trade and economic issues, and pay into the EU budget for a period of years after Brexit in the hope of lessening the shock of leaving to the UK economy.
But three senior Labour MPs from northern England and Midland constituencies have told the Guardian that the move risks alienating thousands of voters in traditional seats who support greater controls on immigration.
John Mann, the MP for Bassetlaw who voted to leave the EU, told the Guardian the new policy would fall apart unless it incorporated an EU immigration policy. “There are a lot of ladders being laid [by the shadow cabinet] to the continent and they require a clearly defined immigration policy to remain credible,” he said.
Another traditionalist MP said the policy would be “very damaging in hundreds of Brexit-voting seats” that Labour needs to hold outside major cities. “There aren’t enough metropolitan remain-type voters to win an election. There is real concern that we have misled voters.”
Another said: “This is a disaster in northern towns where we got Ukip’s vote by backing Brexit and immigration controls as soon as possible, not by hoping they might come through in the future.”
The change in Labour’s stance comes on the eve of the third round of formal talks in Brussels at which David Davis, the Brexit secretary, is expected to press the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, to show flexibility on his refusal to discuss future trade relations until progress is made on the UK deal.
Labour’s new position was welcomed by the TUC, whose general secretary, Frances O’Grady, said it would give working people “certainty on their jobs and rights at work” and show that Corbyn’s team were “the grown-ups in the room” on Europe.
The policy change has delighted many pro-EU Labour backers. The party plans to also leave open the option of the UK remaining a member of the customs union and single market for good, beyond the end of the transitional period.
Permanent long-term membership would only be considered if a Labour government could by then have persuaded the rest of the EU to agree to a special deal on immigration and changes to freedom of movement rules.
Party sources said the changes had emerged after charged shadow cabinet debates over several weeks. The new policy was formally endorsed on Thursday with the backing of Emily Thornberry, the shadow foreign secretary, who was last week tipped as a future leader of the party by the Unite leader, Len McCluskey.
Pro-EU Tory MPs who also support remaining in the single market will be put under intense pressure by Labour to fall in behind its position and rebel against their own party.
Matthew Parris, the former Conservative MP now working as a columnist, told Radio 4 that despite his loyalty to the Tories and his opposition to Corbyn, he had begun to think about “the possibility of voting for a party that is brave enough to take this stand”.
Some Conservative MPs hope Labour’s change of policy could open the way for them to put further pressure on the government to soften its stance during the negotiations. One said: “This could be the leverage we need.”
Anna Soubry, a former minister, said Labour’s new stance was part of a shift in the political landscape since the general election. “Hard Brexit has gone, thank god. The debate has shifted to the arguments we have been making for some considerable time.”
However, she warned that Corbyn and the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, were still “Eurosceptic Bennites”, adding on Twitter: “They’ve not changed their minds, they’re playing politics.”
David Owen, who left Labour in 1981 to form the SDP, has written a letter to the Guardian praising Corbyn’s new position on Brexit. The former foreign secretary described himself as a Labour supporter who agreed with much of Corbyn’s manifesto, and said he may consider rejoining the party in the future.
In the letter, Lord Owen wrote: “As a Labour supporter not yet ready to renew my membership, it is good to see Keir Starmer’s position agreed with Jeremy Corbyn.”
Ministers have accepted the need for a time-limited transition period to put in place a new UK-EU relationship following the article 50 deadline of 29 March 2019.
They will argue that the UK must be outside the single market and customs union during this period, allowing it to control migration and strike up new trade deals with non-EU countries around the world.
Corbyn said on Sunday he supported close continuing ties with the EU after Brexit, as he neared the end of a five-day tour of 18 Scottish constituencies.
At an event at the Edinburgh Fringe festival, an audience member told Corbyn he was delighted to read that Starmer had signalled a longer transition period post-Brexit.
Corbyn said Labour wanted ongoing membership of many European institutions and continued protection of EU policies on employment and consumer rights.
“I think there has to be an arrangement in the long term with Europe, which is one of tariff-free trade access to Europe, which is protection of the rights and regulations and gains we’ve made from Europe on workers rights, environment protections and consumer rights, and have continued membership of European institutions, particularly the European court of human rights, but there are many others as well,” he said.
A Conservative spokesman said Labour still could not say whether it would end unlimited freedom of movement or decide whether the UK should leave the single market. “This week we will be heading out to negotiate a deal with the EU that avoids unnecessary disruption to people and businesses, and allows the UK to grasp the opportunities of Brexit,” he said. “Labour are still arguing from the sidelines.”
The Liberal Democrats said Labour’s policy shift was “all spin and no principle”, pointing out that Corbyn sacked three shadow ministers in June for voting in favour of the single market.
Ukip accused Labour of betraying Brexit voters. “Jeremy Corbyn has finally capitulated to the Blairites and abandoned his principles of 30 years,” said the party’s interim leader, Steve Crowther.
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