Lesley Riddoch: Kezia Dugdale declares war on Labour over Brexit

Labour's Scottish party conference in Dundee this weekend may finally see sparks fly over Brexit '“ at last.

Kezia Dugdale's challenge may reflect the Scottish rather than the British consensus on Europe
Kezia Dugdale's challenge may reflect the Scottish rather than the British consensus on Europe

Weekend papers reported that former leader Kezia Dugdale has “declared war” on Richard Leonard by launching a campaign to support single market membership.

That’s a very large step further than Jeremy Corbyn’s new policy of customs union membership – a suspiciously belated conversion revealed last week when he drew the line at joining the single market.

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On the face of it the Customs Union fudge seems a pretty good compromise – it ensures seamless trade with the EU and fixes the problem of the Irish border without accepting freedom of movement and the other troublesome EU acquis that accompany single market membership.

Veteran New Labour heavyweight Frank Field denounced the move as “a mound of beans,” and told Sky News: “He’s led you all up the garden path [with] demands the whole country would vote for because he knows it’s impossible to deliver.”

Frank Field is undoubtedly right – but why should Corbyn worry about that? Labour’s customs union policy will never run the risk of early implementation – it’s being advocated simply to nudge a rudderless, deeply divided government into final collapse.

As one commentator noted, “It’s not so much an evolution of policy as an escalation of Labour’s efforts to bring down Mrs May.”

Indeed, Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer has already warned that Labour could back a Tory rebel amendment to stay in the customs union. That’s quite possible. Corbyn’s party has already crossed the once-unthinkable Rubicon when Labour MPs backed Tory MP Dominic Grieve and his amendment giving the Commons a final “meaningful say” on the Brexit deal. If Tory rebels also back the vote, as called for by Remain rebel Anna Soubry, Theresa May could suffer a humiliating Commons defeat which would throw her Brexit plans and her leadership into crisis.

In any case, being savaged by Frank Field probably doesn’t hurt the left-wing credentials of Corbyn and Leonard one iota. And the same probably goes for the attack by Kezia Dugdale, whose reputation was badly damaged by the I’m a Celebrity fiasco.

Field and Dugdale are yesterday’s people as far as Corbynites are concerned and their gloomy status may attach to any cause they support. Equally, Corbyn’s Customs Union policy at least has the merit of looking distinctive.

It’s not the same as the SNP, which has advocated Customs Union and Single Market membership for more than a year (though Corbyn pays so little attention to Scotland, that happy coincidence is doubtless unintentional). Nor is it a second referendum – the desperate fig leaf grasped by Lib-Dems to cover the naked uselessness of the craven Commons.

But nonetheless, Corbyn and Leonard may not get through Dundee with their rickety “Customs-Union” strategy intact. Scottish Labour delegates will be asked to back a resolution in support of a soft Brexit. It’s not yet clear how that will be precisely worded, but ten constituency parties have passed motions supporting Britain “remaining permanently in the European single market and customs union.”

So Kezia Dugdale’s challenge may prove to be a timely one that reflects the Scottish rather than the British consensus on Europe. Doubtless, many will argue her proposal is so close to full EU membership, there’s hardly any point in leaving.

Well quite. But the new Scottish Labour for the Single Market group has cogent speakers to make the case. Ms Dugdale is supported by Ian Murray (for long enough the only Scottish Labour MP at Westminster) and popular Labour MEP Catherine Stihler.

Together they have the nous and the wit to train their guns on the weakness of Jeremy Corbyn’s position – if they dare.

The biggest problem for Labour is the Corbyn small print. In a nod to Leave voting north of England voters, the Labour leader insisted that a Brexited UK within the Customs Union would not be “a passive rule-taker,” meekly accepting regulations, tariffs and rules made in Brussels.

Yet without full membership, that is precisely what will happen. Ask the Turks who’ve not clinched any new trade deals since entering the Customs Union. Ask the Norwegians, who’ve paid for access to the single market via the EEA since 2009. This proud small nation with the world’s highest GDP has no say whatsoever in forming the regulations surrounding goods and services traded with EU members – yet they pay an admission fee equal to a whopping 98 per cent of full membership for the privilege. In Norway, the EEA is known as the Nike deal – “just do it” – yet there is no political momentum for quitting this expensive, rule-taking, halfway house.

The alternatives (no deal or full membership) are roundly perceived to be worse in a country which has no desire to share its rich fishing waters with all comers as Scotland must.

Corbyn and his lieutenants have repeatedly (and wrongly) asserted that it’s impossible to be in the single market without being in the EU. Norway proves that’s untrue – just politically very difficult. Countries with single market access must accept free movement, annual EU budget payments and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. That would produce the least economic damage for Scotland, according to the UK government’s own leaked analysis. But it would cross far too many red lines for former Ukip voters and the tiny coterie of Brexiteers running the Tory party at Westminster.

So how will Scottish Labour handle next Sunday’s vote? Will delegates think of England and try not to push Corbyn’s ramshackle policy too far, in the hope it carries them to another snap election without reawakening Ukip? Or will they reflect the Scottish consensus (which includes Ruth Davidson on a good day) and finally have the whole-hearted, passionate, informed conference rammy this vital issue deserves?

That would earn them some respect – and some headlines. Either way, one thing’s certain. At long last, at a Scottish Labour conference, voters will be listening.