Jeremy Corbyn has come under pressure to soften his policy on Brexit, with dozens of senior party figures and a majority of its membership calling for a Labour government to keep the UK in the EU single market and customs union.
Speaking on the first day of the Labour Party conference in Brighton, Mr Corbyn claimed membership of the single market could stop him from implementing key policies including the nationalisation of rail operators.
However, he promised to listen to concerns from members demanding the party work for a ‘soft Brexit’. And the shadow chancellor John McDonnell held out the prospect of a change in policy, suggesting Labour could back single market membership if EU rules on free movement of people could be reformed.
The comments came after more than 30 MPs and other senior Labour figures signed a open letter calling on their party to “to have the courage of its convictions on Brexit.”
They include the former shadow Scottish Secretary Ian Murray MP and Scottish MEP Catherine Stihler. Separately, three Scottish local party branches have submitted motions calling for Labour to back permanent membership of the single market and customs union.
Theresa May bowed to pressure from Labour and other opposition parties last week and confirmed that current EU rules would continue to apply during a two-year post-Brexit transition phase, that will run until 2021.
Asked about the UK’s relationship with Europe after a transition phase, Mr McDonnell said it was “difficult to see how we can maintain within [the single market] with all the four freedoms that need to be guaranteed”.
But he told ITV’s Peston on Sunday programme: “However, you know we’re talking to our European colleagues… I think we’re moving on in these discussions.”
Asked yesterday whether he would respond to the 66% of Labour supporters who want to stay in the single market, Mr Corbyn said: “Of course, I will listen to them.
He told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show: “What I would say is that the important priority is to ensure that we have a tariff free trade access to the European market. Half of all our trade is with Europe.
“I would also say that we need to look very carefully at the terms of any trade relationship ‘cause at the moment we’re part of the single market, obviously.
“That has within it restrictions in state aid and state spending. That has pressures on it through the European Union to privatise rail for example and other services.
“I think we have to be quite careful about the powers we need as national governments.”
Europe threatens to overshadow what is expected to be a conference ‘victory lap’ for the Labour leader, who defied critics to win seats in the general election and deny Theresa May a majority.
After seeing off a leadership challenge at conference last year, Mr Corbyn arrives in Brighton with his authority unquestioned and with unprecedented control of party machinery for a Labour leader. But splits over Brexit could undermine Labour’s bid to present itself as a government-in-waiting as senior Conservatives squabble over their own policy on the EU.
Mr Corbyn’s supporters in Momentum, the campaign organization that backed his leadership, were reported to have emailed members asking them to block attempts to put a debate on the party’s Brexit policy to a vote, which could heap further pressure on party leadership.
A fringe debate on Europe attended by the shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer heard a plea from pro-EU MP Seema Malhotra for delegates to demand a vote on a Brexit motion.Mr Corbyn has said he wants ordinary delegates at conference to be given greater power to set policy.
The first day of conference also saw a large protest by Labour supporters in favour of the European Union. It followed a huge rally on Saturday attended by thousands of young Labour voters, with a number of EU flags in evidence as Mr Corbyn addressed the crowd.
Academics dispute claims that EU rules prevent state intervention in industry and public services, pointing to continued state ownership of utilities and rail services in France, the Netherlands, Germany and beyond
Liberal Democrat leader Sir Vince Cable said Mr Corbyn's young supporter base should be "mortified" at his stance on the single market.
“Jeremy Corbyn has always wanted to leave the EU, leave the Single Market and leave the Customs Union. Now he is pulling out his old anti-EU arguments to defend Labour’s endorsement of Brexit," Mr Cable said.
“The idealistic, pro-EU, young people who have rallied behind Corbyn will be mortified to discover that he is working hand in glove with the Conservative Party to promote a ‘hard’ Brexit.
“The Labour Party must be clear on Brexit. This is the biggest issue of our time and the public need to know whether they are lining up with pro-Brexit Corbyn or fighting to stay in the Single Market and Customs Union.”