Professor Chris Grey’s analysis on how Keir Starmer's timid policy could become less constipated, the implications of his foolish stance on post-election cooperation and the best/worst scenarios that follow.
First published: August 2022.
In some ways these are golden weeks for Labour. The Johnson government is collapsing amid scandal, and the leadership contest has revealed how limited the talent within the Tory Party is and how riven it is by political divisions and personal animosities. Once the new Prime Minister is in place, that will pose new challenges and possibilities for Labour, not least as regards Brexit policy and positioning. In one way that may become easier. Johnson was the embodiment of the Vote Leave campaign which gave him a particular ability to jibe at Labour for being ‘anti-Brexit’. Such jibes will be much less potent coming from either Liz Truss or Rishi Sunak.
But the issue isn’t simply one of how to position the Labour opposition to the new Prime Minister’s administration. Just as important, if Labour are serious about winning, is how they would deal with the damage of Brexit if they come to power. For it is certain that, whoever leads it, a Tory government is not capable of doing anything remotely sensible about that damage in the meantime – if anything, it’s likely to make it worse – not least because neither candidate is able to even admit that it exists. So Labour need to be ready to address Brexit damage if they win, and they have the opportunity to make it an advantage that they, unlike the Tories, are able to do so.
Labour’s current Brexit policy
In a recent blog post, I gave a limited, unenthusiastic and partial welcome to Sir Keir Starmer’s silence-breaking speech on Brexit in which he outlined Labour’s five steps to ‘Make Brexit Work’. Even that attracted some ire on Twitter, especially my statement that a referendum on re-joining the EU is not a realistic prospect for many years.
Of course, I know that view is anathema to many supportive and longstanding readers of this column, and I obviously don’t like offending such readers. But I don’t write things according to whether I think readers will like or agree with them (whether those readers be Brexiters, leave voters, remain voters, or re-joiners), only according to what I think to be true, or probable, based on my interpretation of the available evidence. Needless to say, I am not always right in what I think, but I am always honest in saying what I think. Hopefully most readers, even when they believe I am wrong, or when I am subsequently proved to be wrong, appreciate that honesty.
Anyway, although I think his definitive, permanent, rejection of the single market and a customs union is a big mistake, I continue to think that Starmer’s Brexit stance does provide the basis of being better than that of either of Johnson’s successors because at least it acknowledges the need to seek to negotiate better terms than those of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA). Both Sunak and Truss are pretending that the TCA was fine and that there are illusory new opportunities that flow from it. So Starmer has a basis to critique their policy and to provide an alternative.
Additionally, of course, he is opposed to the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill (NIPB) and Labour, including the then Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary Louise Haigh, deserve credit for having been robust in their critique of the Bill. Here too, as well as having a critique, Labour have at least the basis of a viable alternative policy in the form of a veterinary agreement, although the details need to be clarified. The Protocol is going to be a central issue in the politics of Brexit in the next few months, with the EU having launched four infringement proceedings against the UK last week, and the NIPB set to be, in some form or other, the first Brexit crisis for the new Prime Minister.
Sir Keir Starmer. | Flickr/UK Parliament
The limitations of Labour’s policy
However, accepting it has some virtues, Starmer’s policy has several problems, even leaving aside its stance on the single market and customs union. The most fundamental is that it fails to address Labour’s own role in the way Brexit has corrupted politics. I discussed this corruption recently in terms of Johnson and the Conservatives (and, outside parliament, the Faragists). But Labour played a part too.
That goes right back to the decision to vote to trigger Article 50, a total abdication of responsibility and principle, and encompasses Jeremy Corbyn’s decision in May 2018 to whip Labour MPs to oppose an amendment to the EU Withdrawal Bill which would have kept Britain in the single market. It is impossible to be certain but, given the very tight parliamentary arithmetic at the time, it is highly likely that this would have averted hard Brexit.
More generally, the endless ambiguities and contortions of Labour’s Brexit position since 2016 – including the failure under Starmer to challenge the government’s refusal to extend the transition period when that was possible, voting for the TCA, and then going mute for eighteen months – all made a contribution to the systemic dishonesty of Brexit politics. Starmer’s breaking of the silence was only a small first step, welcome but not sufficient, to redressing that.
Clearly the capacity of an opposition party to change a corrupted political culture is limited, but it can contribute by honesty in its own positioning, which includes a reckoning of its past errors. My sense is that whereas Starmer has, rightly, made considerable efforts to overtly address the rows over antisemitism during the Corbyn period, those about Brexit have largely been papered over.
This isn’t ‘just’ a moral point about the conduct of politics. It also has a direct practical impact. For although Starmer did break the silence, the way that Brexit still festers as an unresolved issue for Labour impacts upon both general electoral strategy and specific political tactics.
At the strategic level, there’s obviously much more at stake than Brexit, but I would suggest that Brexit is both an aspect of and a proxy for the wider re-alignment of politics in which the places and people that Labour should regard as its heartlands are changing, as is the nature of the electoral coalition it now needs to bring together. From that perspective, the continuing Labour pre-occupation with the ‘red Wall’ as being its ‘true’ heartland, and with placating leave voters in those areas, suggests an unwillingness to face up to this re-alignment and, within that, to face up to Brexit.
That aside, the continuing sensitivity about Brexit presumably explains why, at a tactical level, the follow-through on Starmer’s Brexit speech has been so limited. For example, in his speech last week on economic growth Brexit warranted only a single, vague sentence. Yet it is clear from all reputable economic forecasts, and is incorporated into official government figures, that Brexit is likely to be a major drag on economic growth in the coming years. That can’t be ignored or, worse, as Truss seems to suggest, be addressed by ‘reforming’ the Treasury so as avoid hearing about it. That suggestion isn’t confined to her but arises directly from the Brexiters’ longstanding, deeply-held but preposterous belief that, as Jacob Rees-Mogg has said, the Treasury ‘fiddles the figures’ because it is staffed by remainers. It’s not just denying reality but demanding a different reality that suits Brexiters. That is doomed to failure. No growth strategy, whether under Truss, Sunak or Starmer, can be credible if it doesn’t address the effects of Brexit.
Equally striking, in terms of immediate tactics for political opposition, is how muted Labour have been about the Dover holiday queues. As I noted in my last blog post, when these were at their height last week, the only public comment came from Anneliese Dodds, urging the government to ‘get a grip’ but without saying anything else about the causes and solutions to what was happening. Subsequently, Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves – who in the past has been quite robust in her willingness to call out Brexit damage – avoided the question when asked about the role of Brexit in the delays. If that happens even in a case where the damage of Brexit is highly visible and beyond reasonable doubt it means that the taboo has not really been lifted.
Wanted: a less constipated, more confident approach
To be absolutely clear, I am most emphatically not expecting or suggesting that – either in relation to future policy on growth or immediate Brexit problems like the Dover queues – Labour should be crowing ‘we told you so’ or ‘you asked for it’, or even framing such issues in terms of whether it was right to have left the EU. That would be unnecessary, and impolitic both in the sense of needlessly alienating some voters and in the sense of not befitting a mature government in waiting. Rather, the Labour approach should be one of pragmatic realism: ‘no matter how or why these problems arose, unlike the Tories we don’t have to pretend they don’t exist and we know how to fix them’.
That, as Labour are beginning to argue, means creating a friendly partnership with the EU and with France, which in turn allows a closer trading and regulatory relationship and the development of a better border infrastructure with an agreement on staffing. Of course the latter will take a while because of the government’s failure to act when it should have done. So the proposal could also include some temporary measures, perhaps in the form of incentives for holidaymakers at the next few peak periods to use other crossings. I’m just guessing here – this may not be a viable policy, but my point is to try to identify specific easements for this particular situation.
The same logic could apply to other particular Brexit-related problems, such as NHS staff shortages, where part of the answer might be to create specific schemes to make it easier and more attractive for EU nationals to work in Britain. Again, that may not be the right policy, but, again, the point is that, whatever it might consist of, policies need to exist that openly acknowledge the specific effects of Brexit and propose specific solutions.
Similarly, a mature and pragmatic approach to regulation would be to acknowledge, for example, the spiralling cost of national regulation of the chemicals sector, and to seek, perhaps as part of the TCA review, re-accession to the EU systems and databases that Johnson and David Frost eschewed on the principle that ‘sovereignty’ meant eschewing ECJ involvement. Starmer has already implied that Labour would breach that principle in relation to security databases, so why not chemicals?
With the chemicals sector, and many other sectors, there is a strong business case to avoid the regulatory duplication that Johnson’s Brexit is creating, and which the Tories are set to continue. Or, again, with Rees-Mogg already having recognized the folly of a UK specific conformity assessment regime, and postponed it again, it would hardly need much daring from Labour to suggest an even longer, if not permanent, deferral. That, too, would be widely supported by business and in line with a proposal by none other than the Institute for Economic Affairs!
As with what he implied about the ECJ’s role, there are hints in what Starmer has said about ‘mutual recognition’ that this is what he has in mind for regulatory issues, but he must know that ‘mutual recognition’ in itself won’t fly with the EU, any more than it did when Theresa May tried to go down that path in 2018 or on the periodic occasions it has been aired since. Labour need to spell out, with more honesty and greater detail, what they mean, and will certainly have to do so eventually if the ‘Make Brexit Work’ slogan is to have any practical meaning at all.
What all this adds up to, then, is not an explicit wholesale denunciation of Brexit, but an acceptance that leaving the EU is having specific damaging consequences and taking responsibility for addressing them. Of course such an approach would alienate some voters, and be attacked by the Tories. Equally, it would not satisfy many erstwhile remainers and would yield, at best, only partial reductions to the damage of Brexit. But the same is true of the current Labour approach and of just about any conceivable Labour approach. This one would at least allow Labour to talk realistically not so much about Brexit in general as about the consequences of Brexit in any and every policy area where they are part of what is relevant.
The key point is that the nature and tone of Labour’s approach needs to shift from one of constipated embarrassment, and reluctance to go near Brexit except in the most marginal ways, to a free-and-easy comfort which unapologetically – indeed proudly and confidently – acknowledges problems and propounds solutions. That would be a clear contrast to the Tory approach and, I believe, one which would have considerable electoral appeal given opinion poll evidence about how many people now think that Brexit was a mistake (53%, compared with 25% who think it was right) and/or that it hasn’t been handled well (54% think it has been handled poorly, with 31% saying ‘very poorly’; 29% think it has been handled well, with just 5% saying ‘very well’). This is an open door for Labour, and it requires little courage to push.
Unwanted: pointless, damaging tribalism
However, even if all that came about, there is another problem with the Labour position in that, since his Brexit speech, Starmer has come out unequivocally against any post-electoral deal of any sort whatsoever with the LibDems (perhaps less surprisingly he had already done the same as regards the SNP). In my view this is foolish, unnecessary, and by far the most indefensible decision he has taken as Labour’s leader. At a general level, it continues the historic error that has split the liberal-left majority for over a century ensuring that, because of the first past the post system, that majority has so often been ruled by the Tory minority. It’s a fresh iteration of that pointless, damaging tribalism.
At the specific level of Brexit, and the next election, it makes the timidity of his policy (even in the more expansive version just discussed) all but untenable for remainers, who are once again treated with contempt. In my earlier blog post on Starmer’s Brexit speech, I argued that it gave a justification for remainers - who are a majority of Labour voters, a large majority of LibDem voters and a not insignificant minority of Tory voters - to vote tactically for Labour or the LibDems according to constituency, in the hope of a Lib-Lab partnership (of some sort) that would substantially soften Brexit. That argument has clearly been damaged by the rejection of post-electoral cooperation.
It means that whereas in 2019 many LibDem and Tory remainers were reluctant to vote tactically for fear of a Corbyn-led minority administration, those same voters will now have less incentive to do so in the hope of a Starmer-led minority administration. On the other hand, it means that Labour remain voters in seats the LibDems could take from Tories have less incentive to vote tactically for that outcome, at the very moment that their reluctance to do so because of memories of the Tory-LibDem Coalition is beginning to fade.
Obviously it’s conceivable, perhaps more than conceivable, that, if it came to it, Starmer would back-track after the election if the outcome demanded it, but if so then his government would already start under a shadow of dishonesty. Just as conceivable, because of what he has said, he simply won’t get the chance to backtrack because voters will cling to their party allegiances and, yet again, there will be a Tory government based on a minority of the vote share.
If that happens then, along with many other consequences, there will be no softening of Brexit. So as a result of the combination of an abstruse political system and a failure of political leadership, we’ll be in an even worse situation than we are now. It will be one in which, if present poll trends continue, a clear and confirmed majority think Brexit is a mistake whilst being stuck with it being embedded in its hardest form until, perhaps, 2030. By then it will be extremely difficult to unwind.
This may not happen; long-term political predictions are always a fool’s game, and there are lots of things that could happen to derail the scenario I have described. But if it does then Starmer’s foolishness about this will have been an error of historic proportions.
A coalition of competence?
There is still time for Labour to re-calibrate before the next election, both by deepening their post-Brexit policy and softening or reversing that on post-electoral co-operation with other parties, including not just the LibDems but the SNP. The arrival of the new Prime Minister could provide the rationale to do so (‘we had hoped that this would bring a new sense of responsibility from the government but, alas, we see the same old lies as from Boris Johnson, so in the national interest …’).
Naturally the Tories would attack this approach as subverting ‘the will of the people’, but given how clearly Starmer has indicated there will not be a re-join policy, and with the LibDems having deferred such a policy to an unspecified future date, that will only have traction amongst those for whom it would work against any Labour approach. The political mood is very different to 2016-2019. It would also be attacked for threatening a ‘coalition of chaos’ (presumably the attack Starmer is seeking to neuter) but, again, the political mood is very different to 2015. Even the composition of the electorate is different. It is easy to understand the desire to do so but, as Neal Lawson of Compass has argued last week, it’s just not enough for Starmer’s Labour simply to try, hedgehog-like, to block off every potential Tory attack line without offering any positive offer to voters.
Rather than look back fearfully to those old attacks, if Starmer is serious in his constantly repeated desire to ‘look forward’ it’s necessary to face the realities of the situation which, if Labour win the election, they will inherit. That unavoidably means dealing with the ongoing process of Brexit and with the legacy of what has already happened as a result of Brexit, which in turn means honesty and realism. At the same time, if Starmer is serious in his other refrain of wanting to end the divisions of Brexit that can’t be done by pretending that they don’t exist, or by acting as if the only way to do so is by asking erstwhile remainers to make all the compromises.
It would be better in every way – morally, practically, and even electorally – to be truthful about realities. That’s why I would think Labour should soften their line on single market and customs union membership, to at least keep them open as possibilities for the future. That would certainly be far more realistic in terms of the economic facts about Brexit. But part of what being truthful about realities means is to accept what is politically feasible at a particular time. Admittedly, that’s a judgement call but my judgement is that Labour under Starmer are not going to soften on the single market in terms of their own policy going into the next election.
If I’m wrong, good. If I’m right, the point, as I’ve argued before, is that Labour’s interests and anti-Brexit interests aren’t the same. From an anti-Brexit point of view, the best realistically available outcome is still a Labour-LibDem, or perhaps Labour-LibDem-SNP, government. A coalition of competence, so to speak (whether or not configured as a formal coalition). With the LibDems already having the basis for an incomparably more detailed and ambitious policy on a far closer UK-EU relationship than Labour, culminating in single market membership, and perhaps with SNP support*, such a government could be expected to at least go further in that direction than a purely Labour administration. Starmer’s current disavowal of such cooperation has made that more unlikely but it remains the only glimmer of hope.
(*) I confess that I don’t fully understand how the SNP would approach this scenario. Might they judge that, if a UK government did come to embrace the single market, it would decrease support for Scottish independence?
— AUTHOR —
- Professor Grey is the author of Brexit Unfolded: How no one got what they wanted (and why they were never going to) | Biteback Publishing
- Text: This piece was originally published in Brexit & Beyond and re-published in PMP Magazine on 4 August 2022, with the author’s consent. | The author writes in a personal capacity.
- Cover: Instagram/UK Parliament. (Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.)