The silence has ended. From the moment that the Conservatives won the 2019 election pledging to “get Brexit done”, the Labour party has been reluctant to speak up on Brexit. Its strategy of constructive ambiguity was there to protect itself from accusations that the party wanted to relitigate Brexit. Sir Keir Starmer’s declaration last week that Labour does not want to “revive old battles” but to “make Brexit work” is a significant development not just for the party but – with Johnson gone from Downing Street – also for the country.
That Labour now feels more encouraged to talk about Brexit is the result of several factors. The public mood over Brexit is slowly shifting, with almost half of Britons saying that the departure from the EU has made their daily life worse and the proportion of Leave voters who say the same doubling over the past year. At the same time, the economic costs of Brexit are becoming ever more evident, not least thanks to the growing cost-of-living crisis.
In his latest intervention, Sir Keir has taken a carefully calibrated line on Brexit. He said that, if elected, Labour would not re-join the single market or the customs union but, rather, improve to the Brexit agreements negotiated by Johnson. His plan includes sorting out the Northern Ireland Protocol, negotiating a new veterinary deal to reduce trade barriers, agreeing mutual recognition of professional qualifications to allow Britain’s service professionals to practice within the EU and improving cooperation on security matters.
Labour cannot be criticised for the lack of constructive ideas. Yet, the unequivocal words with which Sir Keir has ruled out future single market membership have opened a barrage of criticism on two fronts: one is that Labour has given in to the premise of Johnson’s hard Brexit and, second, that the ideas are “cakeist” because the EU will likely not accept them. Both are unwarranted.
On the first, it is important to remember that the choice before Labour ahead of the next election was always going to be a difficult – and binary – one: campaign to re-join the single market to prioritise the economy at a high political cost – or accept that Britain will not be part of the single market but focus on fixing the practical flaws in the agreements negotiated by Johnson.
The former would make Labour, around a third of whose supporters voted Leave in the referendum, vulnerable to a sustained attack from the Conservatives in the once-held Red Wall seats. The latter would upset former Remainers – still a majority in the party’s voter base – in the hope that these voters would stick with the party given their desire to see the Conservatives gone.
Sir Keir may have stronger pro-EU instincts than his intervention showed, but his new strategy has been guided by pragmatism. It is designed to position the party to regain the working-class pro-Brexit vote that it lost in 2017 and 2019. Whatever one thinks of his choice, it is hard to argue with the fact that Labour is now serious about becoming electable again – and on the political spectrum that the 2016 referendum has tilted in favour of the Tories.
The critique that Labour’s latest proposals are “cakeist” is overstated. Relations between the current government and the EU are at their lowest since 2016. The negotiations over the Protocol have stalled completely. EU leaders and institutions are hoping that the future British government will be open to restoring closer ties and more pragmatic in its approach to resolving Northern Ireland and managing regulatory divergence.
Labour’s enormous advantage would be a clean start, able to reset the post-Brexit political relationship with Brussels and other European capitals. If it succeeds, EU leaders may well be prepared to be more forward leaning to a pro-Europe, anti-divergence government that they would ever be to either Theresa May or Boris Johnson. Trust in international affairs can do wonders.
Yet, for his careful approach, there are three questions that Sir Keir will need to consider further.
First, to really “make Brexit work”, Britain needs more than tinkering with the edges of Johnson’s trade agreement.
Although Labour’s plans would probably reduce some non-tariff barriers with the EU, they would hardly eliminate those barriers. The party leadership needs to be more ambitious. It should think not only about what it wants to negotiate with the EU, but also about what it can do unilaterally – from minimising passive divergence in those sectors that only add to the costs facing businesses, to allowing European workers to plug labour shortages in some sectors of the British economy.
Second, the party needs to be clearer about its post-Brexit offer to Scotland.
In deciding to reject future single market membership, Labour has opened itself to attack from the Scottish Nationalists that there is next to no difference between his and Johnson’s approach. To win precious Scottish seats, that charge will need a convincing answer.
Finally, Labour needs to be careful about the policy specifics.
Understandably, the leadership wants to state clearly what it would do differently from the Conservative government. But there is a risk of saying too much before thinking through the detail. Sensible as it is to strike a veterinary deal with the EU, what exactly does it mean? Does Labour want a veterinary agreement like the EU has with New Zealand that would be easy to negotiate but do precious little to cut costs – or a more advanced Swiss-style arrangement that would help business but outsource the UK’s food policy back to Brussels? These difficult trade-offs should be considered carefully before making any firm policy commitments.
What Britain needs now – as Johnson’s era is ending – is an intelligent debate about the UK’s future Europe policy.
This needs to start from considering where it makes sense for Britain to stay close to the EU, either for economic or political reasons; where Britain should forge a different path; and how to restore closer ties on issues where the UK has shared interests with the EU, from security and defence to the environment and climate change.
It requires detailed policy thinking and a clear strategy. And it needs thinking of Europe not only as an essential part of Britain’s foreign policy, but also its economic policy.
Sir Keir’s intervention last week made clear that Labour wants the country to move on from the divisive Brexit years. This is welcome. But to succeed, there is more – a lot more – that Labour needs to do.