by Alan Wager and Anand Menon
Tuesday, 5
July 2022
Analysis
13:15

Can Starmer ‘Make Brexit work’?

The Labour leader is treading a fine line
by Alan Wager and Anand Menon
Credit: Getty

‘Make Brexit work.’ We can only assume Keir Starmer’s latest slogan was focus-grouped to death before it was adopted. And buried within it is the same blurring of the Brexit trade-offs that has plagued our politics for so long.

A veterinary agreement, mutual recognition of professional qualifications, mutual recognition of conformity assessments, and continued data adequacy. Not exactly the sexiest stuff, but these are all areas where the Labour leader believes that trade can be improved, while making the Great Britain-Northern Ireland border far less onerous.

All of which will have some economic impact, at some political cost. Aligning with EU veterinary standards could conceivably get in the way of trade talks with partners like the US. Equally, pledging to maintain data adequacy will please British businesses, but it will limit the UK’s ability to get rid of some of the more pesky aspects of GDPR regulation.

Left unsaid is the fact that these steps would only address the economic impacts of Brexit at the margins. On this trade-off, Starmer is treading a very fine line. And, crucially, he is less interested in prompting a debate about Brexit than in devising a holding position that will paper over the cracks and allow his team to focus on other issues.

Thus, his outright rejection of single market or customs union membership was clearly meant to signal the limits to his rapprochement with the EU and to reassure Leave supporters (and nullify Tory attacks). Simultaneously, he wanted to suggest to Remainers that there has been a real change in the direction of travel.

The potential prize for Labour is the ability to add Brexit to the economic competence charge sheet — another example of why the Conservatives cannot be trusted to manage the country at a time of economic peril. The danger lies in these halting steps towards closer links with the EU being portrayed as the thin end of the wedge.

Outside Westminster, the political weather has changed. There is growing evidence that voters are increasingly identifying Brexit as a cause of some of the economic problems they are facing. Research from Ipsos showed that both Leavers and Remainers think Brexit is having a negative effect on them personally.

Voters, it seems, accept the trade-offs inherent in Brexit even if their politicians do not: our research found a majority of Leavers say it has had a negative effect on wages and the cost of living. So, while Brexit is not something voters want to argue about, it is something they are increasingly grumpy about. Starmer’s argument is leaning into these political headwinds.

So far — and it is early days — the signs for LOTO are encouraging. After all, a Brexit policy ruling out single market and customs union membership that is supported by James O’Brien and Ian Dunt (albeit not enjoying the full throated backing of the Labour Movement for Europe) was hardly a foregone conclusion. Moreover, the silence of the Liberal Democrats suggests a useful temporary truce.

In truth, Starmer had little choice but to finally make an intervention on Brexit. He could hardly have gone into the next election maintaining a staunch silence on all matters Europe, given the Government seems intent on hammering the issue. At a minimum, his intervention was intended to counter claims that he has no Brexit policy.

More ambitiously, Labour hope it might allow them to weaponise the issue as part of their broader attack on the Government’s economic competence. Whether it works will partly hinge on whether it is Brexit purity or economic security that is the main concern of voters when they finally start to pay proper attention to this debate. You don’t need a focus group to tell you that the Labour leader might like his odds.

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Chris Johnson
Chris Johnson
1 month ago

This is the same Keir Starmer who promised to abide by the referendum result and then spent the next three years plotting for a second referendum. Sorry, a “people’s vote”. I don’t trust him in the slightest not to try and undermine Brexit and pave the way for an easy UK re-entry to the blessed union. Euro and all.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
1 month ago

Starmer is the central casting lower middle class jumped up “Pooter bore”, but I cannot understand why he is not a Conservative? He is from the same Kent pub image as most of them?

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
1 month ago

Making the best of a bad deal sounds like a very sensible policy. Britain will never be offered a deal nearly as good as the one that Brexit threw away, so returning to the EU would seem to be off the table for at least a generation even on the most optimistic assumptions.

Matthew Powell
Matthew Powell
1 month ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

So we should sign up to a higher proportion of EU regulation because this has been a huge success for Europe? Only if by success you mean regulating out of existence economic innovation across the continent, leaving us decades behind America in cutting edge technologies. The issue lies in the failure to diverging enough from the morass of European regulation, not in retaining too little of it.

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
1 month ago
Reply to  Matthew Powell

Sounds like what people used to be saying about communism: “It is actually a great system – the trouble is that no one has implemented it properly yet”. It was not true then either.

Matthew Powell
Matthew Powell
1 month ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

That doesn’t make any sense. I was directly comparing the results of the implementation of the lower regulation US economy and comparing it to the high regulation EU economy, for which we have the data. The EU has stagnated whist America has surged a head. It has been successfully implemented. Does this mean we should become a carbon copy of the US economy? No, but it does indicate that their regulatory model is a superior to the EU’s. I’d say likely, yes it does.

Last edited 1 month ago by Matthew Powell
Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
1 month ago
Reply to  Matthew Powell

If you want to copy the US economy, there are several things you need to acquire:

  • An integrated single market of 330 million consumers
  • Ample land for expansion
  • Ample natural resources
  • Install the pound as the world reserve currency
  • A huge military budget that can sponsor technology development
  • Large-scale immigration of ambitious, rich or highly qualified people
  • An ample supply of possibly illegal seasonal workers to keep agriculture running
  • Minimal social security nets, health care etc. to motivate people to work at low wages.
  • Well-established clusters of universities, venture capital, and entrepreneurs.
  • Popular acceptance of lower standards for food etc.
  • Fewer holiday, and longer working hours.

I probably forgot a few, but these will do to start with. How are you going to do it? Are you quite sure that the US regulatory model is the only thing you need to copy?

Matthew Powell
Matthew Powell
1 month ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

You don’t seem to actually read my responses, in which I already said that I have no wish to copy the US economy exactly. However, the US economy has done particularly well in recent history by allowing its high tech sectors the room to grow, without regulating them out of existence before that have had a chance to get off the ground, like Europe has done. I would say that at present, a lighter touch regulatory model is preferable to the European one. Signing up to a greater proportion of EU regulations, from an institution which has a track record of passing overly restrictive and poorly designed legislation, doesn’t seem like a better deal to me.

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
1 month ago
Reply to  Matthew Powell

I did actually read it. But the differences between Britain and the US (as I pointed out) are so great that there is no way of knowing how much of their success is due to their regulatory system. Even worse – there is no way of knowing how a US regulatory system would play out in Britain – what with all the other political and material differences between the countries. The US and China are both successful, but it is pure speculation whether grafting the US regulatory system (or the Chinese political system) on to Britain would be helpful, or even possible. Meanwhile the costs of Brexit are only too clear. There may well be a pot of gold out there, but (Danish proverb) ‘Better not throw away the dirty water till you have the clean’.

Liam F
Liam F
1 month ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

Interesting. But I guess its too early to tell what Brexit means economically? It’ll take 20 years to know.
Typically economic regulation has 3 main aims in a modern democracy, given time:
A:To address market failures -where true costs and benefits are not reflected correctly.
B:To reduce entry barriers, “level the playing field”, in order to encourage growth.
C:To ensure consumer, worker and investor safety, the “social regulation” if you will.
I would suggest that America is good at A and B but poor at C. On the contrary, the EU is good at C, not great at A, and really bad at B.
Nore of this is to say that the UK needs to choose between either two models. But there is nothing to stop us being okay-ish at all 3. (more probably, we’ll muddle along trying to be good at all 3, which might not be a bad thing)

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
1 month ago
Reply to  Liam F

That makes a lot of sense (though I could quibble at which system is better at correcting for externalities ‘A’). Anyway, the UK has certainly bought the chance of developing its own and possibly better system – if at the not inconsiderable cost of disconnecting from its neighbour and biggest market, and having to play trade politics without predetermined allies. As you rightly say, no one knows yet how it will end. We shall see.