“So let me be very clear: with Labour, Britain will not go back into the EU. We will not be joining the single market. We will not be joining a customs union” – from Keir Starmer’s much-hyped speech at Irish Embassy, London yesterday.
Detailing a plan first trialled by David Lammy, Starmer proposed some tweaks on the margins of Johnson’s Brexit deal, but only to “seek to improve the deal. Not by re-opening it, or re-negotiating it”.
None of those tweaks are about defending workers’ and social protections “inherited” from the EU which the Tories plan to scrap over the coming years.
Yet recent polling shows a rising number of people think Brexit has made “daily life worse” – including a doubling of Leave voters who felt that way (up from 10 per cent to 22 per cent).
Starmer said a key priority would be to improve trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, with a new veterinary agreement for agri-product trade, and a system for low-risk goods to enter Northern Ireland without checks.
Other proposals include a scheme for the mutual recognition of professional qualifications with the EU and a new policing and security arrangement with Brussels.
Stressing that he personally no longer wants a return to freedom of movement, the plan also includes “flexible labour mobility arrangements” for people making short-term business trips between the UK and EU, and for musicians and artists embarking on tours.
One thing the Labour centre-right used to be strong on was its commitment to the EU: now that has gone down the tubes as these wretches renege upon the one and only progressive element to their politics. Ben Bradshaw, the Exeter MP and former minister and a leading pro-EU voice in the Labour party, said Starmer’s approach was “absolutely right”.
He said: “There is no prospect of us rejoining the EU, single market or customs union any time soon, not least because [Boris] Johnson has so completely destroyed trust with our European neighbours that any such move would be on far worse terms than those we had before we left.
“There is, however, plenty that we can do to reduce the enormous damage being done to our economy and our relationship with our allies, by fixing the many problems with Johnson’s botched Brexit deal.”
But Starmer’s capitulation to anti-EU sentiment is unlikely to convince many, especially as the Tory media will make it their business to remind people of Starmer’s record.
Back in 2018, Starmer received a roar of approval from Labour delegates as he spoke (to the dismay of Corbyn and his pro-Brexit advisers) in favour of holding a second referendum on Brexit: “Nobody is ruling out Remain as an option!” he said, to masive applause. The video clip of that moment has been stored in the Tory party’s vaults for regular deployment ahead of the next general election. They hope and believe it will go down well in the “Red Wall” and drive home the idea that Starmer cannot be trusted.
At the 2019 Labour conference there was anger from delegates after the crucial Brexit vote took place amid chaotic scenes as disputes broke out over whether the vote by a show of hands had been passed or not.
One Labour Remainer said: “It was the grassroots against the party machine and the machine won.”
Corbyn’s fudge, approved by a show of hands, envisaged a Labour government negotiating a “credible” Brexit deal within three months of taking power, with the UK remaining in the EU’s customs union and maintaining a close single market relationship, while safeguarding European-style workplace, environmental and consumer protections.
The plan commited Labour to a referendum within six months, but left the question of which side the party would take to be decided at a special conference after the election.
The then-Shadow Brexit secretary (one Sir Keir Starmer) left little doubt where his sympathies lay, telling delegates moments before the vote: “I have a very simple message today: if you want a referendum – Vote Labour. If you want a Final Say on Brexit – Vote Labour. If you want to fight for Remain – Vote Labour. Labour will let the people decide”.
Even the anti-EU Guardian columnist Simon Jenkins says:
Starmer has come forward with a mouse of a policy Although immigration from outside the EU is rising more than it is falling from inside, Starmer promises not to reopen the internal labour market. He wants sectoral deals on agriculture and food, but these are probably uncontroversial provided we accept that the EU will make the rules. He says he can ease up trade with Northern Ireland, but with proposals indistinguishable from those failing under the present government. As for the bureaucratic fatberg, that is the direct, predictable and unavoidable consequence of Britain remaining outside the single market, which Starmer now favours. It is all moonshine.
According to Ipsos, 45% of Britons now feel themselves worse off under Brexit, with just 17% better off. Labour should extend its secret flirtation with the Liberal Democrats into a clear statement that in government, whether or not in coalition, it will consult on opening negotiations on rejoining the European single market, outside the EU. This is not going back on Brexit. It is pursuing the national interest inside a regional trading bloc that covered 40% of British trade. This would remove the fatberg in the Channel, liberate scientists and farmers, and free public services, care homes and hospitality to recruit from Europe at will. Above all, it would clearly be the right thing to do. Why is Starmer so afraid?
It is plainly not true that Brexit is “done” and dusted. The Tories plan to scrap worker and social protections inherited from the EU over the coming years, but haven’t dared yet – mainly because Brexit is still a contentious matter and a lot of “Red Wall” voters were conned into supporting it with assurances (backed by the idiotic “Lexit” promoters on sections of the left) that workers’ rights would be protected – and, indeed, extended! – outside of the EU.
The Tories have not yet introduced checks on imports from the EU and no-one in their right mind sees the Northern Ireland arrangements as “sorted”.
The Observer‘s Will Hutton sums it all up very neatly:
Britain needs to be in the single market and customs union to have any prospect of price stability and growth. It needs to be within the political architecture of Europe for its own security, given the dark menace of Russia. And it needs to be within both to have any chance of holding Northern Ireland and Scotland in the union.
None of the detail of Johnson’s Brexit deal was voted on in the 2016 referendum. Then, Leave campaigners like Nigel Farage were proposing to stay in the Single Market.
In any case, a narrow majority in one vote (taken without allowing 16-17 year olds, or EU-27 citizens settled here, their say) cannot, six years later, bind a population which now knows what Brexit really means.
Unions and Labour activists should demand a democratic debate on Labour’s EU policy. Labour should commit to upholding EU-inherited worker and social protections threatened by the Tories, restoring free movement, and re-entering the Single Market and Customs Union. All those could be done quickly and easily, and would resolve the Northern Ireland complications in passing.
Robert Peston, writing in the Tory Spectator, comments:
Starmer told me [this new policy is] what he believes, but his ad hominem argument may be a triumph of hope over Brussels realism. Finally, Starmer’s five point plan – which reads like the fruits of focus groups with disillusioned Brexiter Labour voters, rather than a manifesto with deep philosophical foundations – may well help Labour to win back seats on the Brexit-supporting areas of the midlands and north, the erstwhile Red Wall. But opinion polls show that a growing number of those who voted for Brexit think they made an error. I asked Starmer why he was abandoning and potentially alienating those who are no longer Brexiters. His response was a classic of deflection. In a nutshell, Labour’s new Brexit policy is at its heart similar to Johnson’s.
In short, Starmer’s new Brexit policy is a betrayal of Labour’s members, of the platform he was elected upon, and of basic socialist internationalism. Beyond that, those of us who believe in internationalism must argue for a comprehensive reversal of Brexit. Lower borders facilitate workers’ unity and social levelling-up across countries.