January 20, 2022 - 9:46am

You could be forgiven for thinking that Labour’s new answer on Brexit — ‘Make Brexit Work’ — is anodyne, derivative and indicative that Keir Starmer would rather talk about anything else. Yet there are two different ways of understanding those three words that help us understand the current fork in the road that Starmer faces as leader of the Labour Party, and the strategic choice he must contend with.

The first interpretation is the technocratic one. ‘Make Brexit Work’ can be interpreted as a call for relatively minor technical tweaks to the existing UK-EU deal: for example a ‘Swiss-style’ veterinary agreement on Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) checks to reduce practical problems and friction on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.

An alternative understanding of ‘Make Brexit Work’ is altogether different. It could be about putting worker’s rights at the heart of an ethical trade policy — a Brexit for workers. Starmer could make it clear that he is willing to use the levers newly available to the UK state to invest directly in UK industry, beyond relatively meaningless initiatives like freeports, in ways that would make Rishi Sunak blanch. As David Frost and Dominic Cummings argue for the benefits of ‘Singapore-on-Thames’ and the necessity of de-regulating the economy to reap the benefits of Brexit, ‘Make Brexit Work’ could be about establishing the foundations for the UK to remain a mainstream European social market economy.

That second understanding of ‘Make Brexit Work’ sounds a lot like, in other words, the platform of one of the more derided movements in the last decade of British politics — the ‘Lexiteers’. Left-wing advocates of Brexit were seen in Remain circles as useful idiots for a cause that was unremittingly centred on immigration and ushered in the premiership of Boris Johnson.

Yet it is this second interpretation of ‘Get Brexit Done’ that, intriguingly, Starmer appeared to pick up yesterday in a profile in The Guardian in perhaps his clearest signal yet on Brexit since becoming Leader of the Opposition. He made it clear there was no way back to membership of the single market or the customs union under Labour, and that “we do have to show what we can now do that we couldn’t do when we were in the EU … that is part of what I mean by making Brexit work.” In other words, it is not about making Brexit boring but about talking up what it could help a Labour government do.

It is possible that Starmer may well be able to ‘have his cake and eat it’, successfully marrying both the Left-populist definition that talks up the benefits of Brexit, as well as being seen as a managerial figure able to come up with useful solutions to make UK-EU relations easier.

In other words, he could achieve what the academic Chris Bickerton, a leading voice arguing in favour of Brexit from the Left, has described as ‘technopopulism’. Successful leaders in 21st century democratic politics — from Macron to the Five Star Movement and indeed Boris Johnson’s call to ‘Get Brexit Done’ — have been able to combine populist appeals to the people with the language of expertise and competence.

If Starmer is to be successful as Labour leader, an ability to show he is competent is only likely to get him so far. It is the radical appeal bit that Labour needs to flesh out this year. That Brexit could become an issue that ties together these two threads of Starmer’s leadership would be quite an about turn, given that Brexit has riven the Labour party. Yet, with a bit of imagination it is possible to see how Brexit really could work for Keir Starmer.

Dr Alan Wager is a political scientist based at Queen Mary University of London and the Mile End Institute.