Starmer on Brexit

Interested to hear Sir Keir Starmer, Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary, on this morning’s Today programme on R4 (@2:12) and, later in the day, setting out Labour’s policy on Brexit in a speech at the Institute of Civil Engineers (no direct link currently available: but Julia Rampen’s report in the New Statesman is about as good a source as any to start with). This has, by the way, been an impressively bright, confident start to this pre-election pre-campaign by Labour in a number of different policy arenas, not just on Brexit, which will pay off in terms of the (eventual) vote.

In addition to Sir Keir’s four benefits of a positive relationship with the EU outside of membership – no tariffs; no new customs burdens; regulations presenting no difficulties; and having a common platform for workplace rights so one country cannot undercut another in a race to the bottom – he made essentially two points of substance: Labour would unilaterally guarantee the right of EU citizens in the UK to remain; and that the UK Parliament would be able to reject the deal in a vote once negotiations had been concluded. In the process, as he made clear in the ICE speech, Theresa’s May’s Great Repeal Bill would be scrapped and a replacement White Paper issued (which doesn’t give the ‘Henry VIII‘ powers to legislate by proclamation that May is seeking and which really ought to be confined to the dustbin of history).

On the first, this is absolutely the right thing to do – in simple human terms, it resolves some of the anxiousness, as set out by the the3million.org on their website and FB page, felt by EU citizens who have made their lives in the UK without needing to take out UK citizenship (but who were denied a vote in the referendum). Sir Keir has said similar previously. In getting the tone and the approach right as negotiations kick-off, he is absolutely correct. People are not bargaining chips. And, in providing an appropriate and precise degree of differentiation, to coin a topical phrase, from the starting point of the Tories, it’s a very welcome position to take.

On the second, it is absolutely right that parliament has not only a meaningful say over the outcome of the negotiations but gains the ability to reject it and ask the negotiators to improve on it. Within a parliamentary democracy, it is impossible to deny parliament such a role – though of course many seek to do so (including the Tories – and here comes that ‘d’ word again). I understand the arguments around negotiating strategy, but this is a position faced by many democratically accountable organisations – trade unions, for example, in negotiating pay deals – and it hardly presents a unique set of problems. (In essence, no responsible negotiator who is to be held democratically accountable will conclude a deal that he or she thinks their constituency might not later uphold and will take regular private soundings as negotiations progress.). Not one that is sufficient to withhold from parliament its primary role, anyway, or which support Theresa May’s rigid, take-it-or-leave it autocratic approach. (I’m tempted to argue here that a parliament – or indeed a Labour Party – which was composed more of trade unionists would understand that instinctively.)

Labour is caught here in a maelstrom in which coherent policy becomes hard to define. The UKIP vote is collapsing and, if polls are to be believed (and there evidently are a few reasons why – outside the French elections – recent opinion polling is not to be believed), seems to be heading to the Tories; while there is the reality that large parts of the core Labour vote outside London lives in areas that voted more strongly for Brexit. At the same time, the Party is caught by the failure – of course not unique to Labour – to develop a more positive narrative about the achievements of the EU which, in contrast to the easy headlines (the EU can be its own worst enemy sometimes), would have encouraged a more open, evidence-based debate about the EU and the UK’s international role in the run up to the referendum. There are strong analogies with the first Scottish independence referendum here, too – a failure to develop a positive, convincing narrative about the benefits of pooled resources within the context of the UK, and what needs to be done to improve the distribution, has left Labour and the Labour voice squeezed between the independence and the unionist votes: a polarised debate which leaves little room in the centre.

So Sir Keir – and the rest of Labour – is facing an uphill task in seeking to protect the Party’s position by not alienating core voters while developing a coherent response to the impractical realities of the policy issues, including on immigration and free movement, raised by Brexit (and which, by themselves, raise major issues of threat to the working class in terms of health, social security and employment). On freedom of movement, I would rather have seen a policy position developed out of the genuine concerns over investment and skills, the impact of neoliberalism and free market economics on people’s jobs and livelihoods, and on poverty and inequality, and the impact of robotics – the sort of issues confronting European capitalism that we hold in common with our EU neighbours and with whom we might have been able to work out a common position were it not for the ludicrous situation in which we find ourselves as a result of this ridiculous referendum. But that’s of course not where we are.

In that context, it is instead about reaching for the principles and values that will help us define a new future for our ourselves. Humanity, dignity, openness and co-operation and collaboration with others, as set out by Sir Keir today, look a good start to me. Ones to vote for, in fact.

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