Labour must accept – and understand – the referendum, Keir Starmer tells Richard Angell and Conor Pope
While the vote to leave the European Union last June may have quickly claimed the career of a Conservative prime minister as its first political victim, it is beginning to feel as though there is an increasing risk that the entire Labour party will be the biggest eventual casualty. Labour appears hopelessly divided on almost every aspect of Brexit: freedom of movement, the single market, even the prospect of triggering article 50 itself has opened up fractures from the shadow cabinet down. In that light, the role of shadow Brexit secretary must be one of the least enviable tasks in Westminster.
Keir Starmer, when we meet him in his parliamentary office, is clearly a busy man. He arrives straight from one meeting and is headed off to another immediately after our interview ends – heading off to sit down with the Gibraltar Socialist Labour party which, as his staff member notes, is one of the last bastions of European social democracy still in government.
Starmer is aware of the size of the task for him and his shadow cabinet colleagues in holding the government to account. We speak just days after Theresa May’s major speech outlining her Brexit plan, which he describes as ‘very vague’.
‘The speech that Theresa May gave … had big gaps in it, and big inconsistencies, and big uncertainties’. Getting clarity from this government can be like getting blood from a stone but, at times, it can feel no easier to get a straightforward line from Labour as it attempts to balance a delicate position.
‘It will be wrong for the Labour party to rip up its history and tradition of representing a broad group of people, as a broad church, and have no greater ambition than to represent half the country. We need to be a party that aspires to govern, and a party that aspires to govern has to be able to represent and speak to all of the country.’
‘That’s where the Lib Dem strategy is so opportunist, because if you really want to be in power, you can’t have a strategy where you have nothing to say to 52 per cent of the country other than “you’re wrong.”’
The other reason to adopt a strategy that incorporates both sides of the referendum argument is that the country is obviously divided, and Labour should aim to heal the fractures. ‘I’ve been struck by the extent to which people identify themselves as either “Remain” or “Leave” … I have been struck by how divided we still are.
Labour, he says, is uniquely positioned to address the post-Brexit divide: ‘Two-thirds of our [members of parliament] are in areas that voted to leave, and one third are in areas that voted to remain. We’ve got members, we’ve got supporters, we’ve got representatives in both camps, and rightly so. That is a strength in the long run, because we need to heal this divide, and bring the people back together, bring the country back together. Simply fanning it, by veering to one side or the other, is the wrong response, however superficially attractive it may be.’
That is why, Starmer contends, there is little need to pick over the referendum campaign itself, and instead concentrate on working out why people were already open to Leave when campaigning began.
‘Whatever strengths or weaknesses we think the Remain campaign had, we have to accept that this was, in many respects, a vote on the state of the nation, and that many of the factors that lead to the outcome were long-term factors that had been there for years. I think one of the big tasks for the Labour party is not just to accept the referendum, but to understand the referendum.’
He is clear that Brexit brings certain inevitabilities. ‘What leaving the EU throws up is that freedom of movement – a basic tenet of being a member of the EU – will necessarily fall away. Therefore the question is: what goes in its place?’ That, he says, does not go against any of Labour’s values. ‘The Labour party has always operated immigration rules. The idea that we wouldn’t have immigration rules is unthinkable. We put the framework in place, we changed that when we were last in power, and therefore we’ve never been a party that has argued for no immigration rules.’
‘It’s very difficult to win an argument with those that feel that their wages have been undercut. This goes to the heart of why we need an honest conversation about immigration. Because there is nothing fair or good about allowing companies to buy people as commodities, so they can use them as cheap labour.’ That is not a good thing, he adds. ‘When I was shadow immigration minister, we went round the country for four months, to different towns and cities – 30 or 40. We talked to businesses and the chamber of commerce, and I asked them the question: “What is the single most important inhibitor of your success over the next three to five years?” They all, wherever the business was, whatever size, whatever it was doing, said “skills”. They were recruiting from the EU and beyond the EU, because they couldn’t get the skills in this country. That is a skills failure. We toured the country to talk about immigration and came back talking about skills.’
Starmer claims that Labour should be relishing the opportunity to deal with the immigration issue: ‘The sooner we have that conversation, the better.’
However, the Leave campaign’s reliance on misleading promises did not help the pre-referendum debate on immigration, and he is especially clear that Tory cabinet minister Priti Patel was reckless to suggest that lower EU immigration would mean a greater scope for immigration from elsewhere.
‘I’m sure it won’t be delivered on. She shouldn’t have made it. I’m afraid it was heard. Along with the £350m for the NHS plastered over the bus – these were some of the most unattractive features of the Leave campaign. I am sure they were heard, and believed by many people in this country who’ve come from beyond the EU … I’ve got a big Bangladeshi community in my constituency, and there is no question that that was heard.’
Reforming the United Kingdom’s immigration rules will necessarily mean changes to the way we access the single market. But for Starmer, that was already clear. ‘I campaigned to remain, so that campaign was based on my belief that the best option was to remain in the EU. But we lost the referendum. If you accept the result – which we have to in my view – then we have to give effect to the referendum and that means that we do withdraw from the EU. One of the problems with membership of the single market, is that our current membership is based on the fact that we are an EU country.’
Maintaining the best possible access to the single market remains the priority, however: ‘I’ve gone round the country talking to loads of businesses, hundreds of businesses, communities, trade unions … and when you boil it down and say, take the labels off, the words “access membership to a single market and customs union”, what is that really matters to you? There’s been unanimity that what they’re concerned about is tariff-free access to the single market.’
Yet talk of using a ‘Canada model’, ‘Norway model’ or even ‘Turkey model’ is misguided, he says. ‘We need to break out of the idea that these are off the shelf versions that we should replicate. They’re not.’ The imperative instead is on working out a unique UK model: ‘I think it’s a mistake to think that the deal that any other country thought was good for that country, which is based on their own business, their own industries, their own culture and history, is the model that we should adopt. The model that we should adopt is the best model for the UK in the circumstances.’
In a swipe at Liam Fox, who has boasted of holding informal trade talks with at least a dozen countries already, Starmer warns of getting carried away on Britain’s ability to trade with the rest of the world. ‘It’s really important we don’t get sidetracked in relation to hypothetical, possible trade deals, that may or may not be possible with other countries, and focus on the task in hand. The trade arrangements with Europe are of paramount importance. It’s our biggest trading partner, and we need to focus on getting that right first.’
In what has been suggested so far, though, the government has ‘set a high bar’ for itself in Brexit negotiations. With the supreme court confirming a parliamentary vote on article 50, and Labour confirming a three-line whip in favour, Starmer is now focused on ensuring that parliament gets a say in whatever deal May seeks.
Photo: Richard Gardner
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