Luke Downham, senior account manager and head of Labour Party engagement
For a supposedly “boring” leader, last night Sir Keir Starmer took quite the political gamble.
Less than three years ago, Starmer seemed very comfortable as Labour’s “Remainer-in-Chief”, calling for a second referendum that could overturn the result of the first.
Fast forward to a balmy evening in July 2022, and not only has Starmer embraced the premise of the Brexit project but also pledged that a future Labour government will “make Brexit work”.
Starmer’s speech ends a long period of silence over Brexit and exposes the Labour Leader to potential political danger from both sides of the Brexit divide.
What prompted this important shift of position, and what is Labour’s policy now?
Following May’s Local Elections, Labour HQ will have noted that whilst the Conservative vote crumbled across England’s major cities and in the Remain citadels of Southern England, Tory support was firmer in key Leave-voting areas across the Midlands and North. There is evidence that the Brexit effect is continuing to play a major role in party voting, with Labour strategists recognising the need to address this well in advance of the General Election.
Following the Prime Minister’s confidence vote, Westminster has additionally been presented with growing clarity on Number 10’s two-year electoral strategy. Brexit remains a key electoral theme the Tories hope to keep alive, particularly as the party grapples with a myriad of scandals, the cost-of-living crisis, and under-delivery on levelling up.
Boris Johnson will be only too aware that Labour’s comeback in Red Wall areas has not been as robust as the Opposition had hoped for, and Tory strategists will have been busy drafting Labour-facing attack lines on Brexit.
Starmer’s new five-point plan is therefore designed to draw very clear – and nullifying – red lines on Europe.
New red lines and old red tape
The critical red line was drawn quickly, firmly and in fluorescent marker; Labour will not seek to re-join the Single Market or Customs Union if elected. Change, instead, will be technocratic, piecemeal and frankly uninspiring.
Starmer believes Britain’s post-2024 relationship with Europe will be decided through bi-lateral discussions over rather niche matters of “red tape”, such as through a new UK-wide veterinary agreement; mutual recognition of conformity assessments; trusted trader schemes in Northern Ireland; and short-term visa waivers for lawyers and the musically-inclined.
Not exactly inspiring stuff for Labour’s Europhile membership, but that’s the point. Starmer wants to be heard by the Brexit-backing portion of the electorate, whilst leaving the door open for technical, rather than political, changes to the faltering UK-EU TCA in the 2024/2025 renewal talks.
The re-emergence of Euro-dogma on the left
It’s worth noting that Starmer would never have given this speech had it not been for the re-emergence of an organised and highly ideological group of Labour members dedicated to promoting the long-march back into the European Union.
Sadiq Khan’s call for Labour to commit to re-joining the Single Market, and prominent MP, Stella Creasy’s assessment in June that ignoring the shortcomings of Brexit amounted to an abdication of responsibility, permitting Johnson to dictate the terms of an awkward reality, have done much to pressure Starmer to act.
The Labour Leader knows that he cannot negate or ignore the party’s instincts for UK-EU co-operation forever, else Labour may end up with a hardcore group of dogmatic anti-Brexit activists who bang on about little else than Europe. Indeed, there is a risk that such a grouping could end up resembling the determined core of Eurosceptics that dogged the Tory Party so profoundly from the early 1990s following the Bruges Speech and Maastricht.
Is the gamble worth the payoff?
The political risk inherent for Starmer is clear. By hitching himself to the Brexit bandwagon, he is in danger of pleasing no one.
To Labour MPs and members, he risks appearing inauthentic and driven by expediency; a high-wire act in a party defined by its values and one that may only be satiated by full UK membership of the EU.
To Leave voters, Starmer could appear to be willing to unpick Brexit and re-open the terms of debate on an issue that is considered to be “done” by a vast chunk of the electorate.
Starmer’s gamble typifies a difficult choice faced by those in British politics; electability or authenticity. On this occasion, he may well have achieved neither.
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November 20, 2023
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