Wonks wake up to Brexit

It has already become a cliché to say historians will spend years poring over Britain’s shock Brexit vote. While there will inevitably be a huge amount of debate over the various causes and eventual consequences, few contest the magnitude of the result.

The immediate political fallout – battles within the two main parties, leading to a shiny new prime minister and decidedly rustier leader of the opposition – was soon surpassed by the scramble to settle scores, with a raft of heavily serialised bestsellers currently making their way towards a Christmas stocking near you.

But as the dust begins to settle on the aftermath, Westminster’s wonks are only just beginning to digest the deeper policy ramifications.

This month, the Social Market Foundation has published a collection of essays examining ‘the fundamental structural challenges in the economy, many of which are now set to be exacerbated by Brexit’. Moving On: A Labour Approach to the Post-Brexit Economy sees Labour MPs, including Progess’ very own Alison McGovern, set out proposals in the areas of infrastructure and housing, financial services, business support, skills, welfare and housing. The report paints a picture of a deeply divided economy and claims the rise in populist politics is ‘at least in part a response to this frustration’.

It is a scene also recognised by IPPR, which has just launched a major new initiative ‘to rethink economic policy for post-Brexit Britain’: The Commission on Economic Justice.

When stacking shelves in my local supermarket, the common wisdom was to keep a close eye on three products that would get stolen the most: cheese, nappies and booze – relatively high value items that it is easy to flog out of a car boot. But when this was explained at a recent IPPR event, the reaction to the existence of a black market in cheese was far from mild! On reflection, it is a potent symbol of exactly the kind of economic wedge the commission has been set up to address. To the organisers’ credit, that is the very reason they have decided to include people like Sara Bryson, the Tyne and Wear-based community organiser who made the revelation, as commissioners alongside the ‘usual suspects’ of academics and policy advisers. The hope is that involving a broader range of contributors will lead more authentic picture of the problems the country is facing.

Of course it is not only economic divisions exposed and potentially exacerbated by Brexit. One of Theresa May’s toughest challenges will be to square the circle on immigration: to be seen to address the concerns of voters without inadvertently hampering growth or hurting business. In a recent speech to the Centre for Progressive Capitalism, Labour’s Chuka Umunna called for ‘fair movement’ rather than free movement as we currently know it. He urged the government should prioritise negotiating a deal that allows ‘preferential access for United Kingdom and European Union citizens to each other’s countries, while giving the UK more control over its borders’, suggesting that one option could be ‘to restrict low-wage immigration in some way, with a more relaxed approach to high-skilled immigration from the EU according to the needs of the economy’.

The issue has been picked up in detail by British Future. Its post-referendum polling found only a fifth of people want to cut immigration of skilled workers. While they found two-thirds of people would like fewer low-skilled workers in future, they argue this is a gross simplification: only one in four want to cut the number coming to work in care homes, for instance. Britain’s Immigration Offer to Europe spells out exactly how a preferential labour migration could work, arguing it is the outcome most likely to lead to a trade deal with the EU.

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Ben Dilks is commissioning editor at Policy Network. He tweets @BenDilks

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