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Is Keir the new Boris?
20 Dec, 2017

Labour’s have-your-cake-and-eat-it Brexit

We know that Boris had a great line and a lousy policy. So why do we let Keir Starmer get away with the same promises? London4Europe Committee Member Michael Romberg looks at the Labour’s Brexit Lead’s lawyerly evasions.

What Boris said

Boris has said, with variations, that his policy on cake was pro having it and pro eating it. We would have immigration control and free trade with the EU.

As so often with Boris’ use of humour it was designed to conceal that he was talking nonsense. And as so often we the electorate let him get away with it.

Labour’s election promises

The 2017 general election manifesto committed Labour to Brexit “negotiating priorities that have a strong emphasis on retaining the benefits of the Single Market and the Customs Union”. It also stated that “Freedom of movement will end when we leave the European Union.

There were warm words towards Europe and EU citizens and commitments to staying in Euratom and Erasmus. Labour rejected “no-deal” as an option.

But on the key question Labour’s position was identical to the Conservatives. They would prioritise immigration control – and yet nonetheless they would seek to ensure that the EU gave us the benefits of being in the Single Market and Customs Union.

What Keir Starmer is saying now

On 6 December 2017 Starmer repeated that he wanted the benefits of the Single Market and Customs Union. He did not rule out staying in them. He said that he wished to retain the European social model. He was not asked about immigration.

On 10 December 2017 he talked about having “easy movement” for EU workers.

Throughout recent months Keir Starmer and other Labour leaders have been very precise on whether they are referring to “a” or “the” single market and customs union. Some may believe that the choice of definite or indefinite article is unimportant. But on 12 December 2017 Labour abstained on a Liberal Democrat amendment to the EU Withdrawal Bill that would have kept the UK in the Single Market. Labour are not trying to stay in the Single Market, not the one that has freedom of movement of people; not the only single market that the EU has.

What does the EU say?

The EU has consistently pointed out that the four freedoms are indivisible. You cannot have the free movement of goods, services and capital in the single market without freedom of movement of people.

In September 2017 when the UK government was briefly clear about leaving the Single Market and Customs Union in order to prioritise immigration control, Donald Tusk welcomed in terms the ending of the belief that the UK could have our cake and eat it.

Now, with the form of words in the agreement on the Irish border and other Phase 1 issues and the Government’s belief that it is possible to have many pluses to a Canada style deal, the UK’s position is less clear. Has the Government gone back to Boris’ policy of simultaneous cake possession and consumption? The Commission in particular sees the Government’s soft Irish border ambitions as hard to reconcile with its other objectives.

So what is Labour’s plan?

It is hard to know what “easy movement of EU workers” means and Starmer is not telling us. Some have advocated only allowing EU workers with job offers free entry. That would block job-seekers, students, partners and self-sufficient persons. Tying people to their employer exposes them to exploitation – hardly a good Labour position. Perhaps easy movement just means getting tough on job seekers who have not found a job after three months – something already allowed under existing freedom of movement rules.

But it is hard to believe that there is a compromise to be had. To retain anything like the benefits of the Single Market the EU will surely insist on freedom of movement. Nor will anti-immigration voters be appeased by a policy of easy movement if in practice it means free movement. The unemployed and homeless EU citizens on benefits were just the icing on the Leave rhetorical cake. The real complaint was about Polish workers – surely the very people to whom Starmer would extend easy movement.

What should Labour voters do?

I have real difficulties in believing Jeremy Corbyn’s claim to be a Remainer. Keir Starmer is definitely a Remainer. However, he is frustrated by opposition and his priority is to have a Labour government. In my view he would prefer Brexit under a Labour government to Remain and a Conservative government.

Lawyerly evasiveness and a pro-EU tone while making impossible promises has served Labour well so far. But at some point people will realise that that game is up. Labour should face up to the choice now:

  • Either we prioritise immigration control, in which case the best trade deal we can hope for is Canada dry;
  • Or we prioritise trade (prosperity, jobs, wages) by staying in the Single Market and Customs Union. That means accepting freedom of movement.

Labour should make the positive case for freedom of movement. And, if we are going to stay in the Single Market and Customs Union, there is no point in leaving the EU. So Labour should campaign to Remain.

Labour party members and supporters should urge their party to end the evasions, stop promising the undeliverable and come clean with the electorate.

That would also allow Labour to hold on to the increasingly disappointed Remain voters it attracted in the 2017 General Election, and swim with the gradual tide towards Remain, rather than against it.

More important, it would allow Keir Starmer to stop doing a Boris and be true to his Remainer soul.