Brexit is a flop, and voters know it. So why can’t Labor call for a closer link with Europe? | Roy Hatterley
JThe idea should be too obvious to need repeating. But Labor is notorious for ignoring the inconvenient truths of economic management. Keir Starmer was therefore right to assert, in his speech to the Liverpool Labor Party, that the top priority of the government he leads will be sustained economic growth. Without it, Labor would be able to fund little, if any, of its proposed reforms. Moreover, the optimism that accompanies economic growth is essential to the promotion of greater economic equality – the socialist aspiration that dare not speak its name.
Yet three weeks before the Liverpool speech, Sir Keir used an address at the Center for European Reform to flatly reject the suggestion that a Labor government should attempt to negotiate some form of customs union with the single market – a prospect of economic expansion so exciting that even the announcement that talks were being considered would spur a sudden increase in capital investment.
Sir Keir is not suggesting that a new Labor government should or would end some or all of its residual bilateral agreements with Europe. And I do not underestimate the importance of maintaining mutual recognition of veterinary qualifications. But as a spur to economic growth, it hardly compares to access to the 450 million consumers of the world’s largest single market – a prospect it seems willing to give up for the bizarre reason that “you you cannot regain the trust of those who have lost faith in politics if you constantly focus on arguments from the past”.
In fact, inconsistency damages political reputations far more than the stubborn refusal to abandon long-held beliefs. Labor said Brexit was wrong in principle one year and promised to “make it work” the next.
It’s hard to imagine how leaving the EU can be made ‘functional’ for the majority of Labor voters who in the last general election wanted Britain to stay. That doesn’t even work for most convinced leavers. I admit there is a bunch of Brexiters so obsessed with the idea of sovereignty for sovereignty’s sake that “taking back control” is an achievement in itself for which they are willing to pay an economic price. But most supporters of withdrawal believed Britain, alone and free, would experience an economic boom. Now they know better.
According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, the British economy will stagnate next year. Which means that during the Brexit years, the British economy, which had hitherto grown faster than the economies of six of the world’s most industrialized countries, 2023 records the slowest growth of any G7 nation. The promise was that any economic damage caused by leaving the EU would be more than corrected by the new trade agreements that would follow our withdrawal. Three treaties have been signed or are in the pipeline. The agreement with Japan is virtually identical to the one we would have had through the EU if we had remained a member. Whatever it means to make Brexit work will be a waste of time.
Brexit is a flop. And voters know it. Opinion polls show both growing regret that we left the EU and growing disapproval of the government’s handling of withdrawal. Now is not the time for Labor to talk about making Brexit work. It is time to expose its failure and offer a radical alternative – a closer working relationship with the EU.
This does not mean that the result of the 2016 referendum can be ignored. Democracy demands that it be respected, Brexiters’ fraudulent claims notwithstanding. But the decision of a one-day referendum cannot determine the long-term fate of a nation, as Brexiteers have to agree. Otherwise, they would have accepted that the dispute ended in 1975, when Britain voted more than two to one to remain in the Common Market. Be that as it may, the European argument today is about partnership and not membership.
There is no doubt that Boris Johnson will lie about Labor’s true intention when he lied about ‘delivering Brexit’. But the minority of voters who believe a word he says will be convinced of Labour’s true intention by the way the party pursues a new relationship with Europe. Britain has chosen to be what the EU calls a ‘third country’. The siren voices in Brussels will oppose striking a bespoke deal with a nation that has turned its back on full membership. But there are still influential voices in Europe who say an EU without Britain is incomplete. They need reassurance that a new Labor government will want closer ties.
Switzerland has treaty rights with the single market that come very close to making it a full member. But Switzerland is special – special in its size, in its banks and in its historical neutrality. Britain should give something in return and the first concession should be an agreement on a European immigration measure in Britain. The rags rise at the mere mention of the subject. But unless we accept some immigration as part of the deal, we will never sign a new free trade agreement. It is taken for granted in all the negotiations, as it was in the discussion of the agreement with India.
It is the responsibility of the Labor Party to keep the flame of European unity burning in Britain. Fortunately, it is possible to combine support for this noble objective in partnership with a bold economic policy to promote trade and accelerate growth. The party’s annual conference is in a few months. Good Europeans should, as a fashionable expression goes, make the most of it.
Roy Hattersley is a former deputy leader of the Labor Party to party