Wednesday 30 December 2020

Labour to embrace Tory alternative reality


According to Labour’s leader Keir Starmer, voting for Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal will bring closure to the whole EU debate in the UK, marking the end of divisions both within the Labour Party and in the population at large. It’s straight out of the Johnson / Trump playbook, but stating as fact something that is plainly not true doesn’t make it fact for them, and it won’t work for Starmer either. As noted yesterday, there isn’t an easily identified and objectively ‘right’ way to vote on the deal being presented to parliament today (although there are plenty of wrong, or at least misleading, ways of justifying the decision taken), but even if there were, the issue would be far from closed.

It is entirely understandable that Starmer would seek to avoid the question of the UK’s relationship with the EU being a major issue in the 2024 election, but equally impossible that he can control that. In the first place, the deal that has been agreed is, at best, half-baked – there are many loose ends around which negotiations will continue for the rest of this decade. Then there is the five-and-a-half-year deal on fisheries which will require substantial renegotiation in the coming years, and where failure to agree could undermine the whole deal. Then there are the inevitable and pre-announced attempts by the current UK government to backtrack on regulatory alignment which are likely to lead to running battles over the terms of trade. Johnson needs a villain, and the idea that the EU will cease filling that role for his government in order to allow Labour to move away from the issue is fantasy. There is also the impact of Brexit on the future cohesion of the UK – that isn’t going away any time soon. And finally, for any party which claims that its aim is to improve the lives of the people of the UK (and I think Labour still makes that claim, although it’s sometimes hard to be certain), there are a whole host of ways in which the future relationship with the EU could and should be improved – is Labour really planning to offer no view on any of that?

Above all, there is the obvious and looming reality that an isolated UK on the fringes of the world’s largest and most successful trading block will perform less well in the decades to come than it could as a member. Going back to the 1960s, this was, ultimately, the reason for the UK’s accession to the Common Market in the first place. The biggest differences between now and then are that the EU now is bigger, more successful, and more integrated as a market than it was then, and that the alternative model (strengthening EFTA) which many of us supported at that time is no longer available. The idea that the ongoing relationship with that market can be set in stone today, for a decade or more, by a thin and inadequate deal which closes off future debate is a fantasy – and a dangerous one at that.

The Brexit myth was and still is that a small offshore country can deregulate business and individuals and still be allowed to compete on equal terms, with trade determined solely on price in accordance with a simplistic textbook view of economics. It’s almost understandable why a bunch of people who know more about financial manipulation and speculation than real industry and business might think that can work, but it’s a lot harder to see why the Labour Party are so keen to embrace the same alternative reality. Starmer is about to set the terms of his own failure.

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