Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Leading from opposition

Labour will challenge the government at every turn and shape Brexit from the Commons chamber, Keir Starmer tells Progress

‘I don’t want to be back here in a year saying: “The great thing is we’ve got a second referendum. The bad thing is none of you have got a job.”’ Keir Starmer, shadow secretary of state for exiting the European Union, does not sugar coat what he thinks will have happened if public opinion on Brexit changes because it is going badly.

It is early on an autumnal Monday, and he is addressing the Institute of Chartered Accountants of England and Wales, an event organised by Progress. ICAEW chartered accountants advise over two million businesses in the United Kingdom, and the audience has vocal concerns about the level of uncertainty about the country’s future, as well, as chief executive Michael Izza notes, as the prospect of undermining a longterm relationship – a big no-no for anyone with a grounding in business acumen.

For Starmer, carping from the sidelines about how badly Brexit negotiations are going is not an option. Watching the Conservative government fumble the first stage of talks brings him no joy, and he wants to be constructive about the way forward, rather than be able to say he was right about the ensuing disaster. ‘We have to act in the national interest. I want these talks to succeed. There would be a short term political advantage to the Labour party if the talks don’t succeed, with a very big price for the country.’

That does not, though, mean going easy on the Tories for the decisions they make during this process, even if it makes Labour more unpopular with the tub-thumpingly pro-Brexit rightwing press.

‘We see our job as challenging the government at every twist and turn,’ he explains. ‘My experience is the unchallenged decision makers make bad decisions, and that’s not just a political thing. Everywhere that I’ve ever worked I’ve observed that the best decisions are the ones that have been held up to the light and have survived scrutiny, and the worst decisions are those where nobody’s really challenged them and afterwards people have looked back and said, “Well, we wouldn’t have done that if anybody had asked some questions”.’

Yet we can expect some cross-party work to get results. He speaks positively about the amendments Conservative members of parliament such as Dominic Grieve placed on the EU withdrawal bill, seeking to ensure a greater role for the British parliament in affirming the end deal. Within that, Starmer asserts, is the potential to really start shaping Brexit from the opposition benches. ‘You can see that what’s really rattled the government is the fact that a number of Tory MPs have signed amendments [on the EU withdrawal bill] and enough of them have signed amendments for the government to know that it faces defeat if it doesn’t now adjust its position – but it’s not easy.’

As well as ‘challenging’ the government, Starmer will neither kowtow to the efforts from some quarters to make politicians proclaim their allegiance to leaving the EU – a question that even Theresa May has recently fallen foul of. ‘It’s no secret that I campaigned and voted to remain in the EU, and I remind myself why I did it. I did it because I’m an internationalist, I believe in collaboration and cooperation … But I also did it because I’m perfectly comfortable with the economic and political model that is the European model.’

He is similarly blunt about what he makes of the process for leaving, which he believes is ‘daft’. ‘No country has ever invoked article 50 before. We’ve never been through this process, nor has any country being through this process. We’re doing it for the first time. Now, Lord Kerr, John Kerr, who drafted article 50 thought that about two years was theoretically right for the exit process, but when he drafted it he never thought any country would be daft enough ever to actually invoke article 50, so we’re now testing his thesis.’

And, while he does not believe that we should kid people about the likelihood of it happening, he does think that it would be possible to stop article 50. ‘We’ve just got to be honest about this, because I think feeding easy solutions to people who are anxious is a really bad thing to do,’ he argues. ‘Article 50’s been triggered – therefore, unless it’s extended it expires in March 2019 and we leave.

‘Whether it’s revocable is open to question. I think it is. I think Lord Kerr who drafted it thinks it is. I think more lawyers think it is than it isn’t. That doesn’t mean it’s going to be revoked. It’s got to be revoked before March 2019, not at some fanciful date in the 20s. Before March 2019, and people who advocate this happening have to think through how that process works between now and a year in March. I think politically that’s very unlikely.’

That, then, brings up back to the possibility of a referendum on the terms of the deal. Much has changed since we interviewed Starmer for the February issue of Progress, and the government’s loss of a majority – and with it, arguably the loss of a mandate for the type of Brexit it wants to pursue, too – in June’s general election has raised talk about a referendum at the end of the process. If anything though, Starmer seems to think that is less likely that simply reversing the article 50 decision – for practical reasons as much as anything else.

‘A second referendum before March 2019 is pretty unlikely. You need legislation for a referendum. You need a consensus in parliament to get that legislation through. You need the electoral commission to be set up and seized of the matter. You need to agree a date, you need to agree rules, you need to identify campaigns on both sides, and you’ve got to have a question.

‘If the question is to be do we stay in or do we go with whatever the negotiated outcome is, we don’t know what that [the negotiated outcome] is, and we’re not going to know until late in the day, and it might be transitional arrangements. Who thinks it’s a good idea to go back to the country on stay in or transitional arrangements? Particularly if the transitional arrangements are the status quo? That’s not, I would have thought, a referendum that’s necessarily set up for a clear, easy and definitive answer.’

On top of that, there is another simple question that Starmer poses: ‘Are people going to change their mind? What’s the evidence? I just don’t know.’ That belief, he says, stems from an ‘insulting’ mindset from ‘Remain’ voters than ‘Leave’ voters simply got it wrong, and will come around eventually. ‘The implication is that only those on the Remain side could see through the deceit and the lies,’ he says. ‘“Remain equals clever, Leave means stupid; you didn’t know what you were really voting for. Let’s give people a second chance because they didn’t get it right the first.” How insulting is that to 52 per cent of those that voted?’

This relates to something Starmer was keen to stress when we met him earlier in the year, and which has arguably been strengthened by the elections results: that Labour is uniquely placed to unite the country. ‘If we’re going to bring this country back together we’re only going to do it by actually respecting everybody whichever way they voted.’

The first task on the road to achieving that, though, is uniting the Labour party, which Starmer claims is ‘not straightforward’ – diplomatically explaining that ‘we’ve got people whose positions on Europe started in a different place in the first place. I was very pro-European; that doesn’t speak for everybody in the Labour party.’ While there may be a few people in the party, particularly at the top, who have divergent longterm aims about our relationship with Europe, he claims that it has become apparent through his work that the labour movement and the business community is united on what is needed in the period after March 2019.

‘It’s blindingly obvious that we need a transitional arrangement to take us from the March 2019 point to hopefully a future agreement, and I set out for the opposition over the summer the position that we should seek transitional arrangements on the same basic terms as now, by which I mean within the single market, within a customs union, abiding by the rules, including the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, and I’ve never known the Labour party and trade unions and businesses be so aligned as they are on this issue.’

What is needed now is for the small clique in the Labour party who share the hopes of rightwing hard Brexiteers in wanting to cut off Britain off from the world’s largest trading bloc to get on board with the rest of the labour movement. As Starmer recognises, a united Labour on this could start leading the country from the opposition. 

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Conor Pope is deputy editor of Progress. You can listen to the Progressive Britain podcast on this speech at prog.rs/keirpod and full audio of the event at prog.rs/keirspeech

Photo: ICAEW

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Conor Pope

is deputy editor at Progress

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