Whilst it was Jeremy Corbyn who gave the speech announcing that Labour, if in power, would seek to create a Custom Union with the European Union, the man behind Labour’s Brexit policy is the Shadow Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, Keir Starmer. A man who when appointed to this role was unlucky; he was a potential future leader who is now tasked to stand up and read out statements that most Labour party members hate to hear.
Thus far, Starmer has delivered a masterclass in skill, competence, and (mostly) political strategy. He has walked the tight rope of Brexit, balancing the realities of leaving the EU with the referendum result.
His proposal on a transition period made economic and political sense. Not only did it provide businesses with confidence and security, if the UK is going to be paying in to EU budgets until 2020 we might as well make the most of the EU’s Single Market. This was a proposal so good that it was immediately copied by the Tories.
Yesterday’s announcements marked more genius. A slight move towards a softer Brexit which would solve the Irish border problem that has confounded David Davis. This move was also welcomed by businesses; the CBI hailed the proposal a Brexit that put “jobs and living standards first”. Unions have seemed equally keen, UNITE general secretary Len McCluskey said: “Jeremy Corbyn has shown that people really do have a choice on Brexit.”
Starmer’s move is clearly perceived as a move that will help the post Brexit economy but critically not endanger the desires of many Leave voters on immigration and having EU laws enforced upon them. It marked for the first time in the Brexit process creative thinking by a major party of how to solve the key issue of the Irish border.
His realistic yet optimistic approach has yet again shown to be superior to that of the government when the EU rejected the government’s trade deal and reiterated that the UK “will only be a trade agreement” because Ms May has refused to stay in the Customs Union and Single Market.” The EU has stated that friction would be added to trade due to the customs checks on goods flowing in and out of the EU, but there could be no tariffs and quotas.
You can see the difference in thinking between the two parties. Whilst Davis is constrained by the fanatics in his own party the Labour leadership have given Starmer a free hand to find the best deal for all sections of the Labour Party, and the country.
But whilst Starmer has taken the problems of Brexit seriously on an economic level, it is party politics where he has truly done well. Labour are divided on Brexit, less so than the Tories in parliament but very much so in the polling booth. Around 35% of their voters in 2015 went on to vote Leave, yet the majority of their constituencies were supported Leave. Labour has had to satisfy Leavers who wanted controls on immigration alongside it’s metropolitan vote who were scared of the impact of losing membership of the Single Market. His tactic surrounding Brexit seems to have come from the London Underground. Clever at minding the gap between Labour’s position and Theresa May’s. This strategy has kept Leavers on side as he delivers the results of the referendum, whilst keeping Remainers, reluctant to defect to an untrustworthy Liberal Democrat resistance to Brexit, voting Labour. By caring about the views of those who voted Remain he has centre ground remainers previously reluctant or unwilling to vote for Labour supporting the party. Both the announcement of wanting the transitional deal and wanting a Customs Union prompted messages to be sent my way about how a friend or family member would now vote for them. It has truly been a master strategy.
When Theresa May lost her majority on June 8th, it was of my opinion that she should form a cross party negotiating team for handling the EU. It would have greatly increased the strength of the British negotiators and reduced parliamentary squabbling. It would also have allowed us to get a deal not decided by hard right Brexiteers. The remain vote, who seem to have been put in a box marked ‘not relevant’, would have some influence on their future outside the EU. However, it would allow for her party’s and perhaps won her survival in the long term.
Instead the Tories have made every mistake whilst Labour have outmanoeuvred them. If an unlikely general election were to come before the end of the Brexit process, getting Keir Starmer negotiating in Brussels would be one of huge positives of a Labour win.