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Expert View

Labour gets worst of all worlds on Brexit

by Denis MacShane | 26.04.2017

Denis MacShane is the former Europe Minister and author of Brexit: How Britain Left Europe (IB Tauris).

It was no accident that in a BBC Today interview this morning (listen from 1:09:10), where Jeremy Hunt had his back to the wall on the NHS funding crisis, the health secretary took every pause of breath to change the subject to Brexit – proclaiming the need to support what Tories have the cheek to call Theresa May’s strong line and clear leadership on Brexit. Conservative election tacticians never look gift horses in the mouth and the sheer confusion of the opposition’s Brexit policy are a dream for Lynton Crosby and the ruthless Tory professionals looking to crush Labour.

After the narrow referendum win for Leave, Labour had a clear strategic choice. It could have focused on the economic risk to the jobs of Labour’s core working class voters. In the words of Nissan boss, Carlos Ghosn: “If walls are erected between the EU and Britain, investments will be reduced.” Labour might also have highlighted the risk of a loss of tax revenues leading to more austerity.

Instead, Labour yesterday accepted the hard Brexit line that free movement would end. The party has therefore signalled that the UK will leave the Single Market. After all, every EU leader has said the four freedoms of movement – capital, goods, services and people – are one and indivisible. As Martin Schulz, a possible future German chancellor, said: “I refuse to imagine a Europe where lorries and hedge funds are free to cross borders but citizens cannot.”

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Keir Starmer, the clever lawyer who is Labour’s Brexit spokesperson, makes a plea to maintain access to the Single Market while withdrawing from the common EU obligation on freedom of movement. But as the Guardian’s shrewd Brexit editor, Dan Roberts, sarcastically noted Labour “believes the EU can be persuaded to give up its cherished freedom of movement rules through some kind of special deal on trade with Britain.

“For baffled Europeans, still determined to make sure single market access comes with its existing rights and responsibilities, it may sound like a lawyer’s version of Boris Johnson’s wish to have his cake and eat it.”

Labour could have worked on a tough new policy of internal controls to manage migration including ID cards as former No 10 staffer Clare Foges, argued in The Times on Monday. It could have advocated major investment in training medical staff and skilled workers, a crackdown on employers exploiting vulnerable low-pay staff from East and South-East Europe, and funds for public services in poorer regions where European and Asian immigrants arrive en masse.

Instead, Labour has opted to tell Europe it shares the Tory’s Brexit line that bureaucratic, costly and time-consuming cold war era entry visas and permits should be introduced. But if voters want hard Brexit, they will vote for the genuine article. And if they don’t want this madness at all, many will vote LibDem. Labour risks ending up with the worst of both worlds.

Edited by Hugo Dixon

2 Responses to “Labour gets worst of all worlds on Brexit”

  • Keir Starmer, although his heart is in the right place, is too much of a lawyer to be an effective politician.

    Let me recap.

    ~ Until Cameron announced the referendum, the issue of Europe was way down the electorate’s list of priorities at #6; so the vote was clearly called to sort out internal party politics, not for any democratic purpose.

    ~ The referendum was won on the basis of a series of whopping lies and endless untruths & innuendos from the Leave campaign. For reasons given above, Cameron disastrously forbade the gainsaying of these lies.

    ~ The Leave campaign was financed by truly vast amounts of cash from four or five right-wing donors – donors who, as financiers (mainly), had a huge amount to gain from leaving the EU regulatory environment. The analogy with Trump’s heist on behalf of America’s rich to the detriment of his voter base is striking & appalling.

    ~ The list of horrors that will afflict us, if we leave the EU is too long to list, and I am sure I do not have to reiterate them here. But it is worth adding that, given the parlous state of our civil service, and its appalling record on projects of any kind of any degree of complexity (from passports to NHS notes to universal credit to defence procurement), the act of leaving is, probably, literally impossible in practical and logistical terms. It will be like removing a brain to save a heart.

    ~ The whole thing is made worse by the fact that the biggest reason given by Leave voters for leaving was that they wanted to control immigration, whereas it is becoming abundantly clear – based on a late-dawning realism – that we cannot control immigration in the way proposed, if we want to maintain a vigorous economy; there is also authoritative analysis giving the lie to the belief that immigration has damaged blue collar levels of employment or wages: it has not.

    ~ It was one thing to get a vote to leave, and I don’t suggest that the will of the people should not have been set in motion (even if the vote was as good as rigged), and I can follow KS that far. What I cannot understand is why he cannot join forces with the Lib Dem position, which is that, although we may have voted to leave the EU, we did not vote on – because no one gave us any idea – how to leave the EU; and that a democratic vote on the future arrangements for this country needs to be put, not to a second referendum on leaving, but to a new referendum what is acceptable to the country as a price for leaving. We should also have the right to pull back, if the price is exorbitant.

    ~ Mrs May says the country is coming together – it is not. She is demanding compliance from all members of both houses of parliament with a programme she refuses to set out. This is the opposite of democracy in action: comparisons to Turkey’s Erdogan are not wholly far-fetched.

    Thus, Starmer in all his reasonableness is failing to rescue us from Corbyn and all his fecklessness. And this is despite 55% of all Labour votes in the referendum being to Remain. So, democracy is ok for voting in Labour leaders, but not for determining Labour policies.

    It’s a big betrayal by Labour of its own voters, and, ultimately, the country.

  • I think this is too unfair on Labour’s position; the key thing to know about Labour’s position is that it IS prioritising jobs and the economy first, immigration second. Thus it’s approaching negotiations, after leaving terms are decided, from the point of view of getting single market access, and then negotiation what else that will mean around it.

    Kier Starmer I think misspoke in saying that free movement would definitely end; he was really trying to point out that it may end, it depends on whether the EU offer anything other than single market membership as a means to achieving single market access. Even so, it’s a very reasonable proposal that is actually most of free movement anyway, it just keeps the door open for tweaks.

    The problem is that these are negotiations; no-one can say what the deal will be, only where they will be starting from, and the end result will be some compromise somewhere in the middle.

    The difference is that Tories are prioritising immigration controls, and demanding full single market access on top or they’ll walk. An absolutely terrible negotiating strategy by any conceivable measure.

    Labour however is prioritising jobs and the economy, and also looking to unilaterally guarantee EU citizens rights to stay, taking a much more conciliatory and reasonable position, while recognising that they may or may not get EU immigration controls at the end of the day.

    The difficult is that politically no-one wants to say that free movement will continue, even if it very likely will (and almost certainly will during any transitionary arrangements).

    Also, I find your accusation of “betrayal” of Labour voters deeply unhelpful; Labour more than any party is deeply split on Brexit. A majority of members voted remain, but a large number of constituencies and historic voters favoured leave. There was no easy choice for Labour, and again, it’s about negotiations, at best they can set out their hoped-for outcome and work from there, hopefully achieving most of it.

    The only important fact is that under the Tories the outcome will be dreadful.