Sir Keir Starmer announced Labour’s policy on Brexit in early July 2022 and immediately disappointed many pro-Europeans by apparently ruling out joining either the European single market or forming a customs union with the EU. This immediately attracted cries of disappointment from pro-European voices seeking to return the UK to European institution membership.
Before I start, let me put my cards on the table: I’m a passionate pro-European. I’ve lived and studied in Europe, I speak a couple of European languages, I believe that the EU isn’t perfect but it’s in the UK’s interests to be a member and I campaigned for and voted Remain in 2016.
But I’d like to add a few more thoughts to Labour’s Brexit announcement and explain why I think it’s the right thing to say. For now. I know this is, shall we say, a divisive issue. The Labour Party is in something of a quandary over Brexit – its members and supporters are largely pro-European but the constituencies they need to win in order to stand a chance of winning the next general election are largely Leave-voting areas (the so-called ‘red wall’).
Freedom of movement and regulatory alignment
For those disappointed that Starmer won’t commit to rejoining the EU single market or even the customs union, I believe there are sound political reasons for this if taken in the right context. The idea of single market membership is perceived to be toxic right now because of the requirement for free movement that it entails. I had first-hand reports from Labour canvassers in Wakefield that the Rwanda deportation ruling by the European Court of Human Rights hurt Labour badly in the run-up to the by-election in June.
In other words, in key seats that Labour needs to win, immigration is still an electoral issue. I personally wish that Labour would address this issue and explain why immigration isn’t the issue many voters think. This will however take (a lot of) time – longer than the run-up to the next general election. Recent polling research that free movement is not such a divisive issue after all is welcome clarification – but I would not expect an immediate volte face off the back of one report, no matter how well-argued it is.
Other political issues with the idea of single market membership are the need to pay into the EU budget and possibly become responsible for a portion of the EU’s sovereign debt. The EU’s Covid recovery fund was made possible by the decision to collectively incur and service debt for the benefit of the entire bloc, even already indebted member states. This is a thorny political question for UK politicians with the possibility of unhelpful and divisive culture wars distracting from a general election campaign not at all difficult to imagine.
Finally, we should consider that even single market membership would require the agreement of all other single market members (since the single market is by very definition about mutual recognition of standards) and it would also require at least one very substantial piece of UK domestic legislation along the lines of the European Communities Act 1972 to give supremacy to EU law in the area of the single market. As a former top lawyer it seems reasonable to suggest that Starmer is well aware of what would be required and the potential difficulty of getting it through parliament if Labour were to win the next election with a small majority. It might occupy parliamentary time required to enact other Labour manifesto pledges.
At the time of writing, just as Liz Truss has formally assumed the office of prime minister, Labour are already ten points ahead in the opinion polls with some suggestion that this could rise as high as 17 points against a Truss administration that the general public are largely unfamiliar with. In such circumstances of a healthy opinion poll lead, one can perhaps understand Starmer wanting to ‘play it safe’.
Even a customs union has its political price. Recall in the late Theresa May era when it was briefly floated as an option. The UK would adhere to EU fishing regulations in May’s initial Brexit withdrawal agreement which contemplated a customs union as part of the Northern Ireland ‘backstop’ – even if only temporarily. This proposal was defeated by the largest ever majority for a government motion in the history of the House of Commons.
I would wager that, should negotiations along the lines of a customs union proceed, EU farming regulations would also be put on the table. Both of these would be political suicide in the current UK climate – particularly with Nigel Farage still circling in the background.
Polling support for rejoining the EU
Polls quoting a slim majority in favour of rejoining the EU don’t form an electoral basis for pushing the rejoin agenda. Many times, these polls are presented as binary yes/no results and don’t include ‘don’t know’ figures. But the number of undecideds is crucial, without which it’s difficult to take a poll’s results seriously. It could be for example that a poll quoting 52% in favour of rejoining and 48% in opposition, actually comprises 11.0% no, 11.1% yes and 77.9% don’t know.
Secondly, polls don’t tell us where the people in favour are located or how strongly they hold those opinions. They could be in safe Labour seats where theoretically Labour could afford to lose their votes. Statistically it’s likely that the people in favour of rejoining the EU live in big cities which tended to vote Remain in the 2016 referendum; but these also tend to be safe Labour parliamentary seats.
Under the current electoral system, the ideal outcome from a purely party-political stance is to win every seat by one vote – all other votes once you’ve won are effectively wasted. Boris Johnson won the 2019 general election by winning lots of seats with narrow majorities and the SNP did similar for the Scottish Westminster seats. Unfortunately, for Labour the votes of the Eurosceptic-red-wall-voters count for far more under this system than progressive pro-EU voters such as those calling for the party to commit to the single market and/or customs union options.
Pro-EU direction of travel
Not knowing how strongly the pro-EU views are held is also important. In a binary referendum it doesn’t matter, but in a general election campaign the story is very different. In a general election, especially under First Past the Post, you have to weigh the parties’ offerings and effectively vote for the one you least disagree with on all the issues in their manifesto. Under First Past the Post, even if you might most agree with the manifesto of a particular candidate, if that candidate stands no chance of winning in your constituency, voting for them is a waste of your vote.
Dislike of Jeremy Corbyn seems to be a major reason Labour lost so badly in 2019 even though Labour were offering a referendum on the final Brexit deal as part of their manifesto. In other words, general elections are complex and other priorities might rank higher for voters than the question of rejoining the EU.
Of the two parties that could conceivably win the next general election, one (Labour) is offering the direction pro-Europeans want to go: closer alignment with the EU (even if it’s not at the pace or to the ultimate destination some might want). The other (Conservative) is only promising to drag us further away from the EU.
Keir Starmer and David Lammy visited German President Olaf Scholz and members of his government in July 2022, and discussed learning points for a possible future Labour government on drawing from the best economic practices across the world and how the UK and Germany could work together. This should be positive news for pro-Europeans as a sign of a Labour government wanting to engage constructively with the EU: a vital first step on any path towards rejoining the single market or the EU itself.
Politics isn’t like finding your life partner where you hold on for the true one and only – it’s more like a bus where you get on the one going in the direction you want even if it’s not to the ultimate destination you want. You also have to align with the runway before you can land the plane, if you’ll pardon the mixed metaphors.
Rebuilding relationships with the EU
When it comes to our relationship with the EU, Johnson and his government unfortunately poisoned the well extensively. Joining the single market and/or customs union now would require extensive negotiations, which the EU would be unlikely to undertake while trust is in short supply.
It’s also unlikely the EU would want to negotiate this until such time as they can be sure the Conservatives won’t gain power again and just undo it all immediately. A decision on joining the single market, customs union or EU first needs to be a settled political issue at UK level. Because it’s not just our decision: at present 27 other countries (each with a veto) have to accept us.
We can also be fairly sure that those 27 countries will want to deter other prospective defections from their union – so they can’t afford a message of ‘If you don’t like it, it’s easy enough to come back’. For all these reasons, we’re likely to find that rejoining the EU will be far more difficult than leaving it was.
The times, they are a-changing
In the 2021 London mayoral election the official ‘Rejoin EU’ candidate attained only 1% of the votes cast in the first round of voting. This was in one of the most pro-European areas of the country (London voting approximately 60% Remain in 2016) and with an electoral system that tried to discourage ‘wasted votes’. This is not enough to cause established political parties to change their present policies.
But as times change, public opinion changes and political parties follow suit. Labour once supported unilateral nuclear disarmament – until it didn’t because it realised it was a massive vote loser (Gerald Kaufman’s famous “longest suicide note in history” observation). Labour didn’t support a People’s Vote – until it did because its members voted that it should.
Single market membership is probably off the table for at least the next electoral cycle – for the sake of argument if we assume this parliament lasts its full five-year course and then another five-year parliament – that’s seven or eight years. Public opinion has moved a lot in the space of eight months, imagine how much further it could move in eight years.
Those advocating the UK should rejoin the EU ultimately have to be patient and seek to build their movement. Leave took 40 years to achieve their goal. To rejoin might not take us 40 years, but it also won’t be done in five. As Brexit blogger Chris Grey notes, “It would probably need years of strong and sustained public support for [rejoining] to be a realistic option for both the UK and the EU”. Perhaps the arguments in this piece will cause some people to reconsider their demands for political parties to rush the process.
We need your help!
The press in our country is dominated by billionaire-owned media, many offshore and avoiding paying tax. We are a citizen journalism publication but still have significant costs.
If you believe in what we do, please consider subscribing to the Bylines Gazette from as little as £2 a month 🙏