A lot of hot air has been expended in recent days about the difference between ‘access to’ and ‘membership of’ the single market, and about the fact that Labour’s AMs ‘voted with the Tories’ in response to a Plaid Cymru-tabled motion.
In general, I’m singularly unimpressed with the various parties’ regular practice of accusing everyone else of ‘voting with X’ on a particular issue. It always strikes me as being a way of avoiding discussion of the substantive issue by resorting to simplistic insult rather than a way of throwing light on the issue. In any situation where there is a binary choice of voting for or against a proposition, politicians can only choose one of those options (or, of course, they can abdicate all responsibility, and choose to sit on their hands and abstain). One would hope that politicians would be mature enough to decide how to vote on the basis of the proposition itself, rather than on the basis of who else might be voting on which side. Being on the same side as another party in such a binary situation isn’t the same as forming a coalition with that other party, or even agreeing with them on policy – it’s perfectly possible for two parties to oppose any given policy on totally different grounds. To hear some of them talk, one might think that voting the same way as party X – usually, but not invariably, the Tories – is equivalent to forming a pact with the devil himself.
Returning to the question of ‘access’ or ‘membership’, whilst it could be argued that ‘membership’ is simply a special case of ‘access’ and is therefore included within the broader term, there clearly is an important unresolved question about the nature and extent of access by UK, and therefore Welsh, businesses to the single market post-Brexit. I agree with the thrust of the Plaid proposal in the Assembly that membership is preferable to any lesser form of access in the interests of economic continuity and stability, but I’m also convinced that full membership without accepting a lot of other rules and regulations, including free movement of people, is an unattainable goal.
The political question is about how we respond to that contradiction. It’s been depressing to see Labour AMs and MPs lining up to declare that free movement is no longer acceptable because we have to accept and adjust to the ‘legitimate concerns’ that people have about immigration. What these ‘legitimate concerns’ are is never spelt out; the position of said AMs and MPs looks more like capitulation to a vague and prejudiced xenophobia than a thought-out policy position. It’s increasingly clear, though, that Labour, like the Tories, is moving to a position of accepting that full membership of the single market is an impossible goal, as a result of the conditions which they themselves are seeking to impose.
Part of the Labour response to Plaid’s motion was to describe it as a motion whose main aim was to be the basis of a press release afterwards. I think they’re right to say that, but don’t see anything wrong with doing that if the purpose of the press release were to highlight the issue itself and the dangers that we face if we damage our trading position simply in order to secure more control over EU migration. The bigger problem for me wasn’t using a motion and a press release in that fashion; it was that the publicity which the party sought was more about the playground politics of who voted with whom than with the real and important issue of the economic impact of having to leave the single market as a direct result of demanding controls over migration.If we are to convince people that arbitrary reductions in migration will be economically damaging, we need to address and debate that question directly and make the link clear, rather than indulge in simplistic point-scoring. To date, few politicians – in any party – seem willing to do that.