Monday, 27 March 2017

Labour's Brexit Position: Has Keir Starmer Clarified It Sufficiently?

This morning I heard a speech by Labour's Shadow Brexit Minister, Keir Starmer. The aim of the speech was to clarify Labour's position with regards to the Brexit process by laying a 6 key test framework that any Brexit deal thrashed out between the EU & Brexiteer David Davis' team has to pass before Labour give their backing to leaving the EU. The fact that Labour have set out these tests in the first place indicate that Corbyn, Starmer & Co are not willing to allow the UK to leave the EU without a deal being in place....i.e. a ultra clean Brexit that UKIPpers and extreme Tory Brexiteers are craving is totes off the cards. A relief.

What is clear is that some Brexiteers need to go through a reality check. The rhetoric being used in policy discussions and social media exchanges has to change from that of idealistic "aspiration" to that of "compromise and negotiation". I feel that Labour's tests do help to set out what such rhetoric is expected to entail. Brexiteers can no longer sneer at such a reasonable framework or use the "will of the people" tagline to silence debate and they certainly can't use those arguments in the Brussels negotiating rooms anyways!

Starmer mentions 5 core British values that are "cherished" by the Labour Party which will never be abandoned in an attempt to pass through a Tory Brexiteer dominated deal:
  • Internationalism: looking outwards not inwards
  • Co-operation and solidarity
  • Protecting the fundamentals: human rights, workplace rights, environmental protections and the rule of law
  • Fostering an economy and broader society based on the principles of faireness, equality and social justice
  • Sharing prosperity, power and opportunity across the regions and nations of the UK.
By stating such core values at the start of the speech, Starmer is reiterating the idea that Labour has and will always be an open, tolerant, liberal party rather than one that focusses on populist nationalist ideals. Being an open and tolerant party involves being inclusive of all voices within the Brexit debate, including those who voted strongly to remain. The 6 tests are designed in part to provide reassurance to remain voters that the deal will allow the UK to maintain a positive relationship with the EU as well as preserving key pieces of legislation and protections that have been derived from the EU during our membership. Starmer is also stating that the UK must continue to "honour our obligations" to the EU, whether monetarily or providing advice and support. Brexiteers cannot be allowed to destroy the goodwill that has been built up just because they throw their toys out the pray whenever the subject of money is mentioned.

What are the 6 tests that a Brexit deal would have to get through before Labour allows it to pass through Parliament?
  • Does it ensure a strong and collaborative future relationship with the EU?
The UK and the EU must remain strong allies, especially in the face of a volatile President Trump in the US stoking up far-right populist nationalism and an ambitious President Putin in Russia seeking to expand his influence whilst trying to destabilise Western progressive democracies. Labour are certainly right to point out that our liberal progressive values must be defended and the UK must remain open and willing to collaborate with our EU neighbours on multinational issues to find positive workable solutions. This means that the extent of our collaboration should not be restricted to maintaining trading relationships.
A Labour Government, if they do win a General Election, should promise to try and keep research funding streams open for collaborative projects to help continue to foster an innovative culture in our Universities. Talented professionals from the EU must be allowed to come and work in the UK with access to PhD placements and fellowships. Programmes such as the Erasmus exchange scheme for University studies should also be maintained if possible.
I agree with Mr Starmer that this test had to be stated first to make it clear to Brexiteers that Remainers, including those in Labour, refuse to crash out of the EU without there being an appropriate meaningful deal in place that allows for collaborative projects to continue. As a minimum, May has to agree to transitional arrangements from the 29th March 2019 (when Article 50 expires) so that voters have a sense of greater certainty over the framework of the deal before a treaty is signed which sets out future relations.
  • Does it deliver "the exact same benefits" as we currently have as members of the Single Market  (SM) and Customs Union?
For Labour, sorting out an EU-UK trading deal has to be the Government's main trade priority. We do 44% of our exporting to EU countries whereas we currently only export 1.7% of goods to Australia. Whilst it is commendable that the Government wants to try and increase the level of exporting by establishing trading deals with Commonwealth countries, those trading deals should not be our priority during the Brexit process. Starmer has accepted that the UK will not be retaining SM status but admits that the Government are taking a "significant risk" in the process. This is why Starmer has reiterated the need for the UK to maintain "the exact same benefits" as we currently have as members of the SM. Key attributes include:
    • Continued tariff-free trade for UK businesses with the EU
    • NO additional bureaucratic burdens
    • Continued competitiveness for goods and services
    • No erosion of current workplace protections - i.e. no getting rid of the Working Time Directive.
 Starmer has stated that if this test is broken by the Government, responsibility will "lie squarely at their door". Labour will not accept responsibility if the Government attempts to make changes to employment legislation as a result of leaving the SM such as removing the Working Time Directive and will fight them all the way in the House of Commons and House of Lords, working cross-party to try to ensure this doesn't happen. Starmer points out that Davis has admitted that the consequences of leaving the EU without a deal could lead to significant tariff increases on exports such as 30-40% on dairy and meat produce, 10% export tariff on cars and a loss of passporting rights for financial services, which could hurt the City of London. Labour aren't entirely clear on whether they would support the UK paying for privileged access to the SM and Customs Union (European Commission President Juncker has argued the UK could have to pay up to £50bn for that) but Labour will not accept the UK going onto WTO rules alone. Any scrutinised deal that can be renegotiated within the timeframe is better than no deal at all and Labour are not afraid of sending Davis back to renegotiate.
  • Does it ensure the fair management of migration in the interests of the economy and communities?
Labour have accepted that the Freedom of Movement principle will not be preserved by the Government. However, Starmer believes that a managed immigration policy that takes into account the needs of businesses and communities is the best way forward. Refugees should continue to be taken in (I'm not sure whether the Dubs Amendment would be reintroduced or a similar policy created) and the benefits of migration do need to be mentioned more openly. EU nurses and doctors have made a vitally important contribution to the NHS and agricultural seasonal workers help bring in the harvest which keeps the country properly fed. However Labour recognises that migration has put a strain on public services and housing stock, hence why Labour wants to reintroduce the Migrant Impact Fund to help areas where migration has been high, such as the Boston and Skegness constituency. Starmer argues that a migration policy needs to be created that has the consent of all people in the UK to ensure that we do not become a closed, inward looking country. Labour needs to flesh out their immigration policy further, to see whether they would introduce visas or quotas for certain sectors to bring skilled workers into the UK but I agree with Starmer that immigration control cannot be prioritised above all else...it'll lead to a "self-defeating isolation mentality" with a restrictive policy that far-right populist nationalists dream of daily.

Labour wants to ensure that May instructs Davis to reach a deal on the right to remain for EU nationals in the UK and UK nationals living in the EU pretty much immediately. They should not be treated as "bargaining chips" in the agreement....i.e. the UK should not refuse to guarantee rights for EU nationals in the UK just because the EU plays hardball over tariff agreements. That's pretty much common sense and in line with Lib Dem, Green, Plaid Cymru and SNP demands.
  • Does it defend rights and protections and prevent a race to the bottom?
The EU has played a vital part in helping to improve and expand our workplace protections, something that Brexiteers were very keen to play down during and after the EU Referendum. Institutions such as the European Court of Justice (ECJ) (that the Government now wishes us to leave on democratic grounds) helped guarantee the first protections for trans people in workplaces in the UK, allowing them to be not dismissed as a result of undergoing Gender Reassignment Surgery (GRS). It may now be enshrined within our own Equality Act but it's thanks to the initial ECJ ruling that that happens to be the case. Labour are right to commit to defending employment rights, including the Working Time Directive, Annual Leave, paid Maternity and Paternity Leave, Statutory Adoption Leave and equal rights for part-time workers and agency workers. I hope that Corbyn, Starmer and Labour will keep a close eye on the Conservative far right MPs to ensure that they do not use Brexit as a mandate to change our workplace and consumer protections (the Consumer Rights Directive adopted in 2011 helped to establish the Payment Surcharges Regulations 2012 and Consumer Contracts Regulations (Information, Cancellation and Additional Charges) which came into effect in 2014). May does not have a mandate from the people to try and repeal these.

It's not just our employment rights and consumer protections that are under threat. Brexiteers such as Michael Gove have salivated over the prospect of eroding environmental protections and health and safety regulations. Gove recently moaned about the EU Habitats Directive that helps to safeguard over 1000 endangered animal and plant species as well as over 200 habitat types across the EU (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/brexit-eu-regulations-michael-gove-environment-drugs-a7649041.html). The EUHD, alongside the Birds Directive form the cornerstone of EU conservation policy. Gove says that the Directive stalls housing development schemes but he's not prepared to admit that there is a benefit to allocating "a suitable alternative space" to offset the impact of potentially destroying protected habitats such as heathland. So it seems it's more a case of "can't be arsed to be green Tory" than a true bugbear.  Gove's preference for scrapping the Clinical Trials Directive altogether also worries me, especially in light of the failed drugs trial in the US which left 3 women blind with detached retinas and severe bleeding. The CTD allows for trials to still be conducted safely and securely, whilst streamlining bureaucracy and allowing trials to be "co-sponsored" so that NHS Trusts can work closely with academic organisations. Strange therefore that Gove wouldn't support the CTD, especially when organisations such as Cancer Research UK recognise that the "risk based, proportionate approach promises to significantly cut red tape", meaning that they can "set up and run more clinical trials, helping us to beat cancer sooner." (see http://www.nhsconfed.org/regions-and-eu/nhs-european-office/influencing-eu-policy/clinical-trials).

At the moment the future of EU-UK drugs research does seem up in the air; two institutions were meant to relocate to the UK (the European Medicines Agency and the pharmaceutical division of the EU Unified Patent Court) but it remains to be seen whether that will happen before the Brexit process has been concluded.

The Great Repeal Bill that is being presented to Parliament on Thursday will involve complex negotiation. Starmer quotes evidence from the House of Commons Library that shows that DEFRA will have 80% of its legislation affected by Brexit. I am glad to hear that Labour will "strongly oppose" any "sunset clauses" which allow EU-derived rights to "lapse" after 5 years. All workplace rights, consumer rights and environmental protections must remain in place unaltered and Labour must be prepared to work cross-party, including with Tory backbench rebels to ensure this happens. Corbyn has already stated that even technical changes to EU law must go through Parliament so I expect there to be intensive debate over the next few months in the House of Commons over May's powers to amend EU legislation.
  • Does it ensure there is no diminution in Britain's national security or ability to tackle cross- border crime?
Labour needs to ask tough questions of PM May when it comes to future collaboration on tackling cross-border crime and terrorism. Police forces deserve to know whether the UK will remain members of Europol and Eurojust and if that's not going to be the case, what transitional arrangements and future framework will be put in place to ensure that the UK continues to help in the battle against international crime. Another issue concerns the retention of the European Arrest Warrant (EAW), which Starmer reminds us has "helped extradite more than 50,000 criminals from the UK to the EU in the past 5 years and bring 675 wanted criminals to the UK from the EU." I believe that a future Labour Government should commit to retaining or regaining membership of Europol and Eurojust and retain the EAW; there is no point changing relationships that have worked
effectively whilst we have been members of the EU and there is no reasonably sufficient justification for changing those arrangements that has been submitted by the Brexiteer-led Government.
  • Does it deliver for all regions and nations of the UK?
At the moment, not every voter in the UK feels that their voice is being listened to with regards to the Brexit process. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland need a firmer, more meaningful say on the negotiations. In Wales, voters want to know what will happen with regards to funding. Wales has had £4bn in structural funding from the EU and priorities for the next few years up to 2020 include tackling bottlenecks affecting A40 and A55 (using funding from the European Regional Development Fund and improving youth employment and attainment (using funding from the European Social Fund). £1.89bn in total is expected to be spent. This EU aid has been guaranteed until 2020 by the Government but no framework has been put in place regarding increases in the Welsh Budget post 2020. Labour will need to decide what kind of budget they will need to allocate to Wales should they win the next General Election and such information must be available in the election manifesto.

In Northern Ireland, it's predominately about preventing the need for routine border-controls and preventing tariffs on goods import and export wise. Families and workers want to be able to cross the NI and Irish border without fear of paying taxes to do so. Labour must state that the NI-Irish border should be seamless and non-restrictive.

In Scotland, it's about retaining the benefits of Single Market access, paired with a more liberal immigration policy. The UK is more divided than it has ever been and PM May has done very little in my opinion to help heal those fractures. The fact that Nicola Sturgeon is so concerned about the possibility of Scotland leaving the EU with no deal as part of the UK that it has prompted her and the SNP to call for a 2nd Independence Referendum should flag up concerns for us all.
Labour remains committed to the principle of political Union but believe that devolution needs to be speeded up, not just within a national framework but a regional one too. There is no real compelling case for further centralisation of power at Whitehall, so Labour must come up with a detailed devolution strategy to appeal to voters who want to see tax raising and spending powers given to local and regional councils.

Conclusion:
Labour has now produced a comprehensive and clear framework for the party to use to scrutinise the terms of the Brexit deal. Labour candidates at a council level can now talk about the framework to their constituents to reassure them that Labour will not let the Conservatives get their deal through entirely unopposed. I'm pleased that the test has included ensuring that EU nationals right to remain in the UK is protected fully, and hope this will mean their ability to access in work benefits and the employment rights will remain the same for them as UK nationals, especially if they have been in the UK for more than 5 years. It's also good to see that Labour are prepared to defend environmental protections and hope that they will work with Tory rebel backbenchers, Green MP Caroline Lucas, the Lib Dems, Plaid Cymru and the SNP to help defeat the Government on any attempt to scale back those protections, including the EU Habitats Directive.

I do think Labour needs to be even clearer on specific issues such as whether they would reinstate the EAW if the Tory Government tried to get rid of it or whether the Erasmus scheme would be protected. As the Yorkshire and Humber Labour MEP Richard Corbett has mentioned in his excellent recent blog on "Brexit and Higher Education", the UK will need "some kind of associate status to access framework programme 9" which will be the main EU funding stream for research after Horizon 2020 ends. Would Corbyn's Labour commit to joining the framework programme 9 if they were elected in 2020? Such fleshing out needs to be done whilst the Brexit deal is being negotiated.

Some Remainers will argue that Labour's speech is too little, too late. The decision made by Corbyn to 3 line whip through the Brexit Bill without amendments has not gone down well and there is some suspicion as to whether Corbyn will stick firmly to the 6 tests laid out by Starmer. What would happen if only 1 or 2 of the tests were not met? Would Labour strike down the deal straight away or ask for it to amended or pass it through regardless? What happens if PM May doesn't present a comprehensive deal to Parliament? Such eventualities need to be planned for, considering that Labour wouldn't have enough votes to defeat the Government without Tory backbench rebels joining them. Perhaps Labour aren't going far enough. Should Labour do as the Lib Dems have done and promise a 2nd EU Referendum within 2 years on the terms of the deal (or on leaving the EU without a deal)? I'm still sympathetic towards such a referendum proposal in place of a 2nd Independence Referendum for Scotland. The fact is that in all reality, the Scottish Government will vote for IndyRef2 to take place at some time within the next 2 years. Even if PM May asks for it to be postponed till after April 2019, the Brexit deal may not be one that Scottish voters can accept (i.e. a Hard Brexit) so when Scotland does hold its IndyRef2, voters may still vote to leave the UK and PM May and Corbyn will have to respect the result, even if the margin of victory is under 5%. Corbyn is willing to allow the people of Scotland a 2nd referendum if they wish it to happen. It's very democratic of him to say this but it puts him at odds with many Labour MPs as well as Labour and Lib Dem Unionist Remainers and Leavers.

Labour's approach to Brexit should be framed within its vision for the future of the UK. That's why it was important for Starmer to talk about what Brexit will not achieve for UK voters. I stand by Starmer's suggestion that Brexiteers did sell voters false hope, especially in relation to extra money for our NHS. The £350m was a deliberate lie used to entice voters at the ballot box, one that I will never forgive leading Brexiteer campaigners for. Whilst the Brexit process is being negotiated in Brussels, Labour must hold the Government to account on decisions they are taking at home. This includes questioning their education vanity project funding promises when state comprehensive schools face real term cuts in per pupil funding and questioning their decision not to increase social care funding to £2bn a year as the Kings Fund have indicated is needed as a minimum. Brexit certainly won't restore public trust in politics; there were plenty of young people who were so turned off by the vicious nature of the EU Referendum debate that they may never vote again. That's sad news for our democracy where youth representation should be increasing, not reducing. I look forward to seeing more of Labour's policy platforms that will help to address accountability and transparency issues to help build public confidence. I want to see Labour openly declare that they will reduce the voting age to 16 (which they've already promised to do) and to announce new innovative policies that will help our NHS and Social Care services to expand and flourish. The Brexit process itself cannot be allowed to dominate our national political scene. It cannot be used as a smokescreen or an excuse to allow the Tories to pass through unpopular policies unopposed. This Brexit policy I hope signals a shift in communication approach by Labour to one that is clear, bold and unwavering. It'd be sad to be proved wrong when the Brexit deal reaches Parliament only to be allowed through unopposed.