Sir Keir Starmer’s speech leaves a number of unanswered questions about Labour’s Brexit policy

Sir Keir Starmer’s speech leaves a number of unanswered questions about Labour’s Brexit policy

Labour continues to find itself in a difficult position on Brexit, attempting to find a middle way which can hold together its increasingly fragile coalition of Remain voters in metropolitan areas and Leave voters in its traditional working class heartlands.

Leading figures from the New Labour era have been particularly critical of Labour’s approach, with Lord Mandelson having replied “well, search me” on Newsnight on Monday night when asked to explain Labour’s Brexit policy, before going on to criticise Labour for not having differentiated “their position and their policy sufficiently from the Government”. Tony Blair, meanwhile, continues to pursue an openly anti-Brexit agenda at odds with his party’s position.

Shadow Brexit Secretary, Sir Keir Starmer, has given his first major speech of the election campaign in an attempt to answer these criticisms and spell out a clear and distinct Labour policy on Brexit. Here, BrexitCentral analyses the key passages from Starmer’s speech, how they compare to the Conservatives’ position, and how likely they are to be compatible with the EU’s position in the negotiations:

“We recognise that immigration rules will have to change as we exit the EU, but we do not believe that immigration should be the overarching priority.”

While polling since the referendum shows that the economy has overtaken controlling immigration in the list of voter priorities, YouGov polling from the end of March showed that 40% of the public believe that having to choose between immigration and free trade with the EU is a false dichotomy – they believe it is possible to do both.

Free movement of people with the EU is a binary issue – either the UK has it or it doesn’t. But with Keir Starmer committing to end EU freedom of movement in the Q&A after the speech, it is not clear how this pledge not to make immigration the “overarching priority” distinguishes Labour’s policy position from the Conservatives’ in this area in any meaningful way. Starmer’s subsequent comments that the UK needs to keep “free movement of labour” have only served to add to the confusion around what Labour’s immigration policy is.

“We do not believe that Brexit means weakening workers’ rights and environmental protections or slashing corporate tax rates.”

This is more natural territory for the Labour Party, historically speaking. While the Conservatives have also committed to maintaining workers’ rights after Brexit, these are areas of post-Brexit domestic policy where Labour hope they can appeal to voters who have traditionally been less inclined to trust the Conservatives on issues like workers’ rights and the environment.

“…we will seek: continued tariff-free trade between the UK and the EU, no new non-tariff burdens for business, regulatory alignment and continued competitiveness for goods and services. Whether this is best achieved through reformed membership of the Single Market and the Customs Union or via a bespoke trading arrangement is secondary to the outcome.”

Here, Labour are keeping open the possibility of remaining in the Single Market and Customs Union through some form of “reformed membership”. Given that Labour have committed to ending free movement of people, but the EU has repeatedly stated that it will not separate the ‘four freedoms’ of the Single Market, it is extremely difficult to see what form this “reformed membership” could take while being acceptable to the EU. Labour will need to provide significantly more detail of what this would look like for it to be a credible policy position.

“And rather than focusing on hypothetical new trade deals with other countries, Labour will focus above all else on securing strong trading arrangements with the EU.”

Labour is essentially prioritising staying in the EU Customs Union over the UK regaining the ability to make its own trade deals, in a direct point of contrast to the Conservatives, who have made signing post-Brexit trade deals a key part of their agenda.

EFTA membership, which allows states to sign their own trade deals whilst remaining a part of the EU customs union, is not a viable option as it would mean the continuation of EU free movement. So any bespoke customs arrangement with the EU would almost certainly have to be negotiated on a bilateral basis, rather than the UK taking an ‘off-the-shelf’ model.

“Theresa May has said that no deal is better than a bad deal. Boris Johnson has said no deal is no problem. Labour are very clear that no deal is the worst possible deal… A Labour approach to Brexit means ending this reckless approach. It means making clear to our EU partners that we will seek to negotiate strong transitional arrangements as we leave the EU and to ensure there is no cliff-edge for the UK economy.”

While the Conservatives have generally avoided talking about a “cliff-edge” and using phrases like “transitional arrangements”, they have talked about a period of “phased implementation” to facilitate a smooth Brexit, so while the rhetoric is different, the sentiment here is not totally dissimilar.

Whether voters actually agree that “no deal is better than a bad deal” or not will depend on voters’ own priorities and the precise form of any such “bad deal”.

“…a Labour Government will seek to remain part of the Erasmus scheme so that British students have the same cultural and educational opportunities after we leave the EU. We will ensure the UK maintains our leading research role by staying part of Horizon 2020 and its successor programmes, and by welcoming research staff from the EU.”

Although the Government’s White Paper on Brexit does not mention the Erasmus scheme by name, it does reference the UK’s role in the Horizon 2020 programme and goes on to state: “As we exit the EU, we would welcome agreement to continue to collaborate with our European partners on major science, research and technology initiatives”. So again, this is more of a point of similarity than one of difference between the two parties.

“We will seek to maintain membership of or equivalent relations with European organisations which offer benefits to the UK, such as Euratom, the European Medicines Agency, Europol and Eurojust…”

Euratom, while legally distinct from the European Union, relies on the EU institutions for its functioning, and the Government’s White Paper confirmed that the UK would be leaving Euratom as well as the EU. While Euratom does offer ‘third country’ status, for example to Russia and China, and ‘Associated Country’ status, for example to Switzerland, neither of these would constitute “equivalent relations” as Starmer seems to be calling for.

The European Commission has already confirmed that the European Medicines Agency and other similar bodies currently headquartered in London will leave the UK after Brexit, so Labour will need to set out more detail on exactly what sort of relationship it envisages the UK having with these agencies after Brexit, in a way that is compatible with EU law.

“…on day one of a Labour Government we will immediately guarantee that all EU nationals currently living in the UK will see no change in their legal status as a result of Brexit, and we will seek reciprocal measures for UK citizens in the EU. There could be no clearer signal that Britain is taking a new approach to Brexit than a Labour Government immediately rectifying this injustice. And there could no clearer signal that Labour want a close and collaborative future relationship with our EU partners. So I can assure you today that policy will be in Labour’s manifesto.”

This is arguably the clearest Brexit policy distinction between Labour and the Conservatives, with Sir Keir Starmer pledging to unilaterally guarantee EU citizens’ rights in the UK, and only then to “seek reciprocal measures” for UK citizens in the EU.

This was a major point of debate during the passage of the legislation to allow the Government to trigger Article 50, where the Conservatives successfully held off Labour amendments in the Commons and the Lords calling for a unilateral guarantee of EU citizens’ rights, so it is no surprise to see this making a reappearance in Labour’s manifesto.

“…instead of going ahead with the Tories’ Great Repeal Bill we will introduce new legislation – an EU Rights and Protections Bill. This will make sure that all EU-derived laws – including workplace laws, consumer rights and environmental protections – are fully protected without qualifications, limitations or sunset clauses.”

Given that the Tories’ Great Repeal Bill is set to transpose all existing EU law into UK law and the Conservatives have already made pledges to preserve existing rights granted by EU law, it remains to be seen what Labour’s alternative Bill will offer beyond primarily cosmetic changes.

While there have been calls from some Tory backbenchers and others for ‘sunset clauses’ – which would automatically repeal certain EU laws at a specified point in the future unless an active decision is taken to keep them – the Government has not given any indications thus far that it is considering inserting sunset clauses into the Bill.

“We will also make sure that there is rigorous and independent scrutiny of any new powers this gives to the Executive, because Brexit cannot result in a power grab by Whitehall. This brings me to another commitment we will have in our manifesto: a presumption that any new powers that are transferred back from Brussels should go straight to the relevant devolved body. This will apply to regional government across England, as well as to the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.”

This is a stronger commitment to devolution of powers currently held by the EU than offered by the Conservatives, with Theresa May having expressed caution about devolving all EU powers in areas such as agriculture and fisheries. With the polls showing Labour continuing to haemorrhage support in Scotland and Wales, this pledge may be part of an attempt from Labour to turn around its fortunes in the devolved nations.

“The Tories see Brexit as a way to further their wish to deregulate the economy, slash corporate taxes, water down workers’ rights and remove Britain from anything and everything European. But a Labour approach to Brexit will help ensure we have a fairer society, a strong economy, robust workplace rights, action on climate change and a more international, outward looking nation.”

Starmer draws his speech to a close by repeating his attack lines on workers’ rights, corporation tax and the environment. Whether voters are receptive to this approach remains to be seen, but in terms of the detail, his speech ultimately still leaves a number of unanswered questions on what Labour’s Brexit policy actually consists of, and how Labour’s ambitions would be compatible with the EU’s demands.