Brexit and Beyond:Fabian Conference January 2019

The conference was held in London, with the main theme being “Brexit and Beyond”, with keynote speeches from Keir Starmer, Tom Watson and Emily Thornberry.

These are my personal notes of issues I found interesting or important in some way – definitely not a transcript of what was said in a very full and complex day of presentations and discussion.

Major issues/themes

Constitutional reform – Politicians are widely viewed as remote, and trust in politicians is very low (“experts” much higher). The last five years have demonstrated that our constitutional model does not work in the interests of the people, and risks capture by an overweening government or Prime Minister. We need to formalise some elements of the constitution to secure citizen’s rights and to prevent capture of Parliament by Executive. We need radical devolution of power to nations, regions and localities. Countries with written constitutions have more protection.

A positive inclusive vision – we need not only to criticise the current government and the EU, but to offer a positive vision of society, and plans to achieve this, including plans to reform and remain in the EU. It needs to be a vison which works for everyone

Populism. Faith in all forms of politics is weakening globally, opening door to “populism”, though it may have passed its peak in US and EU as false promises come home to roost

Leadership – people expect leaders to keep us safe, and embody our values. Theresa May has eroded faith in that.

Sovereignty. Sharing sovereignty is not losing it, but strengthening it through cooperation. A sovereign state can choose to share its sovereignty (e.g. NATO) in order to solve problems too big for a single country

Brexit. Extension of Article 50 is essential. There is no longer time to prepare for any kind of Brexit. Any outcome will offend a significant group of the electorate, so we should do what we believe right for the country. If we have a referendum, we must have a strong positive vision for change, not back to “business as ususal”.

EU

Support remains strong in the South and East, where commitment to democracy has been consolidated by funds for development and cash. Public support switches when countries become net contributors.

Reform. The EU does reform, but slowly (e.g. CAP). It is the largest rules based market in the world – the left believes in a rules based order, the right opposes it.

Tax. If all multinationals paid tax at the same level as conventional firms the sum would be greater than the deficits of all member states

The Leave/Remain divide is more about education than age – the 65+ graduates (a small group) are strongly left wing and strongly pro EU

Climate Change. A recurring theme, can only be tackled collaboratively.

Artificial Intelligence. A major policy challenge which we are not preparing for.

Keir Starmer

May is not resilient, but reckless. She invented her own red lines and closed down scope for negotiation at the beginning.

We were right to support issuing of Article 50 notice to authorise the government to seek a negotiated deal in response to the referendum result. That was not authority to sign a deal without Parliament’s agreement.

She has fought at every stage to avoid consultation, scrutiny and accountability. She tried for an approach where Parliament’s only involvement would have been to sign off the final deal in the last few weeks. She is still not listening, merely repeating her personal view of Brexit.

She has experienced the greatest Parliamentary defeat by a head of government in the UK in history (larger than the defeat of Charles 1st)

We are now at phase three of the Labour Conference plan.  It is time to kill unacceptable options and focus on real choices.

Labour now rules out:

  1. May deal (with or without tweaks)
  2. No deal – no majority
  3. Canada – weakens rights, no protection for services, no solution to Irish border
  4. Hard border in Ireland

This leaves only two options:

  1. Close economic relationship – a customs union and a close relationship with the single market (“a” because you can’t be “members” if not members of EU)
  2. Public vote

Time has run out. Leaving requires:

at least 6 Bills passing Parliament (none yet drafted) on: Brexit Implementation; Immigration; Agriculture and fisheries; Trade; Financial services; Plus 700 Statutory Instruments

An example of the problems is Eurojust. As partners in Eurojust we hold a significant number of people charged with serious crimes involving several member states. Without an agreement we have no legal basis to hold them. Do we let them go? Do we withdraw from cooperation on invetigations?

This makes extension of Article 50 inevitable, whatever the plan.

Would participation in the EU Parliamentary Election be a public vote?

Richard Corbett

EU would be very supportive if we change our minds

Public opinion has shifted, especially in Labour leave areas – the leavers of working age have swung disproportionately towards remain.

Stella Creasy

Brexit reflects a Europe wide politics of grievance , but Brexit is not top of the EU’s agenda

EU is not perfect – some big failures, but no Brexit deal is better, or addresses our real problems. Remain and reform is still the best option.

We need a clear story about how we want to reform the EU. We need to continue the democratisation of the EU. We have allies across the EU, and they are desperate for us to stay

Stephen Bush

Brexit does not help with our problems

Outside the EU arbitration of disputes is in the hands of pure neoliberal systems

Will people be content if they look back in ten years and say, letting people die for want of diabetes treatment was worth it?

Stephen Kinnock

We need to bridge the divide between cosmopolitans and communitarians

On balance, Cosmopolitans value rights, and mobility, they see globalisation as opportunity and value skills and education

Communitarians did not benefit from globalisation and experienced it as loss. They value responsibility over rights, welcome rules, patriotism and the nation state. They are suspicious of the big state, and want more local control.

New Labour held the two together “tough on crime…” and “cool Britannia”, but began to lose this in the mid 2000s, before the financial crisis. A key moment was Blair’s speech in 2005 which described globalisation as an unstoppable “force of nature”. Politics began to prioritise identity and rights over cohesion. This made it easy for Tories to divide and rule.

6 priorities:

  1. Strengthen common bonds across diverse people, groups and communities
  2. Focus on responsibility and rights
  3. Tackle mobility – the problem that able young people move to cities and never return
  4. Build an active state in partnership with business
  5. Regulate immigration/the labour market (like we do other markets)
  6. Be clear that patriotism is not an insult

Emma Reynolds

The strongest leave vote was in areas with the strongest “import shock” – e.g. buying from China things we used to make here ourselves.

The Tories abolished the migration impact fund which had eased pressures in particular communities

Don’t underestimate the difficulty of redistribution

We need a new Marshall Plan for communities:
Tax assets – revalue Council Tax, reform Inheritance Tax; Land tax; Tax multinationals; Invest in education (France has set maximum primary class sizes at 12 in deprived areas); Restore Sure Start; Regenerate places (including land reclamation where urban decay constantly reminds people of the lost past); build affordable housing and restore size standards

Sunder Katwala

Labour has lost its voice on difficult issues

We need to recreate the party of integration – not saying different things to different people

Wes Streeting

The right values security over freedom

There are only two kinds of Brexit – pointless (Norway) or painful (No deal)

We need to reinvogporate the nation state

Radical devolution of power to localities

Tom Watson

“After Brexit, I warn you not to be ordinary, young, old, or ill”

Our democracy failed after 2008, which should have been the big opportunity for the left.  We need an economy which works for everyone. Since 2008 we have lost 500 libraries, £70m cut from schools budgets, Homelessness risen, 4.5 million children in poverty

AI is a major challenge we are not prepared for. HMG project that 9 million jobs are vulnerable by 2030, including many middle class professional jobs which have largely been preserved so far. It took 100 years and a lot of battles to reach a settlement from the last industrial revolution. This one will be faster.

Growing GDP is no use unless it grows for everyone

A home of your own should be a right (a 30 year old who saves 5% of her income will have saved a deposit for a house by the time she is 75)

We should recover a trust in politics, as serving the people and as a noble profession

Emily Thornberry

We are in dangerous times:

Economic malaise – leave people cut off, divided and angry

Divisive politics makes scapegoating easy for populists

People reject “business as usual” politics

Growing view that violence is a legitimate way of resolving issues

Resurgence of politicians willing to use these for political advantage

It is not our job to appeal to the lowest common denominator: we should not normalise greed, fear or violence

We must rise above Trump and those he has empowered

Populist is not the same as popular – the most popular budget ever was Brown’s 2002 one, which raised NI charges to pay for NHS

Trump explained people’s suffering and offered solutions to people grasping at straws

We must offer an economy which works for all

In a new referendum we must be offering new opportunity to change

We need to codify our constitution

Optimism – we need a strong, positive story to tell about the future inside a reformed EU

Rights – a key element of left politics. The right prioritises security over freedom

All options will upset someone – go for our values and what we believe is the national interest

Taking back control?

Few people question that Britain faces major economic and social problems – falling living standards, housing shortages, poor quality jobs and unemployment, declining public services, a health service in trouble, low productivity and industrial decline. However, the responsibility for most of these rests with the UK Government, not the EU. Yet Brexit means giving more control to the Governments which have made the mess.

The Government has claimed that Brexit, and specifically the withdrawal agreement agreed in late 2018, will result in Britain “taking back control of our laws, money and borders”.  In reality, “control” means rejecting laws which we have agreed to, spending money we have not got, and controlling our borders in ways which will damage our economy and public services, and our international reputation.

Giving back control to the Governments which made the mess

Brexit means that UK governments, which have allowed the economic and social problems to develop, will have the power to make their own laws and regulations independently of the EU. Their record of solving these problems is not good.

In making those laws we will not become “independent” because we will still have to abide by international laws and treaties, including the rules of the World Trade Organisation and any agreement we make with the EU, and we will have to agree how to deal with legal disputes about interpreting those laws.

Rejecting laws which we agree with

Most UK law is made by Parliament, without any influence from the EU.

Estimates of how many UK laws are influenced by the EU vary from 15-50%. The higher figure includes many very specific and technical regulations, only affecting a specific industry (e.g. “classification of padded waistcoats”, which is important to some clothing manufacturers, but not the average voter). https://researchbriefings.parliament.uk/ResearchBriefing/Summary/RP10-62#fullreport

There are hardly any EU laws which the UK Government has opposed. Since 1999, the UK Government has voted against EU laws on only 56 of 2,592 occasions (2%). In some of these cases, the UK Members of the European Parliament voted against the UK Government.

The biggest area of EU legal influence is agriculture (the Common Agricultural Policy accounts for 42% of all EU laws and regulations). The interpretation and application of the rules in the UK is carried out by the UK Government. The CAP accounts for 55% of all UK farm income £4 Billion pa in total. The Government has promised to replace this during a transition period, but has made no guarantees beyond that. https://www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/explainers/common-agricultural-policy

Losing our money

The UK Government agreed the current level of contributions to the EU budget, using a formula agreed between the 28 Member States. Our Government has a full voice in those negotiations, and in the past negotiated a unique “rebate” for the UK, currently worth £5B.

The total cost of Brexit is currently around £30 billion a year, nearly four times our contribution to the EU budget. The costs are in reduced economic growth, the promised continuation of subsidies for agriculture, and the cost of employing additional staff (including civil servants, trade negotiators, and Border Force staff).

To put the various costs in proportion:

  • the “Brexit Dividend” proposed by the leave campaign during the referendum was £13 billion pa, or £4.17 per person per week
  • the actual current UK contribution to the EU budget is £8 billion pa, or £2.85 per person per week
  • the cost of reduced economic growth since the referendum has been £26 billion, or £8 per person per week
  • The long term cost in reduced economic growth of the most optimistic model of Brexit as assessed by the Treasury (the “Norway/EEA” model) is £20 billion pa, or £21.15 per person per week (Their other models – a negotiated deal or WTO terms – produce substantially higher costs)
  • the cost of the Government’s promise to continue agricultural subsidies is £4 billion, or £1.17 per person per week[1].
  • or comparison, the cost of the NHS (for comparison) is £145 billion, or £46 per person per week

Even before Brexit takes place, the effect of the referendum has been to lose more than the promised “Brexit Dividend”.

Not controlling our borders

The UK government is not good at controlling migrant numbers (leaving aside whether it is desirable to do so, on which people disagree).

At present, the EU accounts for only one third of net migration into the UK. The Government imposes strict rules on non-EU migration, but this number is now at its highest for 14 years. Since the Coalition came to power in 2010, and decided to reduce numbers, the net figures for EU and non-EU have both risen by 43,000 a year. https://www.migrationwatchuk.org/statistics-net-migration-statistics/#create-graph

“Freedom of movement”, which allows any EU citizen (including UK ones) to move freely across the whole of the EU is not unlimited:

  • The UK is not in the Schengen accord, which abolished border controls among the states which signed up to it.
  • The UK still controls its borders, checking the identity of travellers and the purpose of visits from EU countries
  • The UK Government has chosen not to use the rules which exist. Under EU law, anyone who moves to another member state for work can be required to leave if they have not found work within three months.

The Government’s proposals for a new immigration policy would allow free immigration for people earning over £30,000 a year. This would bar most EU citizens working here in the NHS (nurses, care workers etc), in hotels and catering, and in agriculture and food processing. All these are areas where we already have a shortage of workers.


[1] The UK’s net contribution to the EU budget (ONS https://www.ons.gov.uk/economy/governmentpublicsectorandtaxes/publicsectorfinance/articles/theukcontributiontotheeubudget/2017-10-31 ).
Spending on the NHS of https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/37/UK-Government-Expenditure-2016-17.jpg

Since the referendum the UK’s growth rate has fallen (from the fastest in the EU to the slowest). https://www.cer.eu/insights/cost-brexit-june-2018

Should we believe opinion polls?

On Facebook, activists regularly suggest that opinion polls should be ignored, because they are politically biased, or because they have proved inaccurate in the past. This is particularly important because a series of polls have now tried to understand the views of Labour members and voters on Brexit issues and policy.

Firstly, opinion polls are a much more systematic measurement of public attitudes than anything else – certainly there is nothing representative about those who answer to door to canvassers, or attend political meetings. This does not mean the polls are absolutely accurate, nor that bias is not be introduced by journalists reporting the results.

Secondly, there is no evidence that poll results are biased by the views of their owners (many of whom are conservatives). They earn their living by telling the truth as far as they can, no commercial advertiser or political party will pay serious money just to have its views or products flattered. For this reason, polling companies have a professional code, they publish their questionnaires and sampling methods and their data. Anyone can look for bias: if you find it, call it out!

Thirdly, most polls are accurate within their stated limits. All publish their margins of error, which are rarely reported in the press. In the case of the EU referendum YouGov consistently predicted a result within this margin throughout the campaign, and the final result matched this. Of 41 UK election and referendum polls conducted by YouGov up to 2016, their predictions were only twice out by more than 3%, and in 29 cases they were below 2%.

When an election or referendum is tight, the margin can reverse the result. This is particularly the case where elections are by constituency, and local variations between constituencies can overturn a prediction (thus Hillary Clinton won the popular vote in the US Presidential Election, but lost because the vote was distributed unevenly between States).

However, in most polls, the numbers of respondents in each constituency it too small for prediction. For this reason YouGov developed their MRP methodology, which combines the known attitudes of particular groups (drawn from large national samples), with the demography of individual constituencies, to predict at Constituency level. Thus we have a fairly clear idea of the proportion of Remain voters among white, 35 year old, university educated, women in high earning groups. We also know the proportion of the electorate in each constituency who fall into that group. By applying this to all the groups in each constituency it is possible to predict a result for each constituency. In the 2017 general election this predicted a national Conservative lead of 3.5%, against the result on the day of 2.4%.

All this suggests that one should believe polls within their advertised margins of error, but beware of how the results may be spun by journalists. When they suggest that a very high proportion of Labour voters now support remaining in the EU, and that there has been a significant swing to remain in the most leave voting Labour seats, they should not be dismissed.

Britain’s Political Clans and Brexit

A new study by BMG research and researchers at the University of Manchester[1], suggests that it is possible to group the UK electorate into 10 distinct values based “clans”, and that these “clan” identities provide a better explanation of voting behaviour in 2015, 2017 and the Brexit referendum, than traditional left/right, social class or demographic factors.  The research is based on survey evidence from 27,000 people, who responded to 27 values based questions.

The argument is that values, which may be unconscious, and which are linked to people’s emotions, serve as decision-making shortcuts or standards for evaluating actions, policies, people and events. They are thus the underlying drivers of voting behaviour, perhaps taking precedence over “rational” weighing of costs and benefits.

This fits with the widespread observation that voting behaviour in the EU Referendum, and much of the subsequent political debate on Brexit, is emotional, and that attitudes to Brexit and subsequent developments are surprisingly uninfluenced by changing evidence. It has also been observed that, while 31% of the electorate say that are not supporters of any political party, only 10% do not define themselves as “leavers” or “remainers” on the Brexit issue[2] (and 44% say that they are “very strong” “remainers” or “leavers”).

The paper also argues that the “clan” approach more accurately represents the political realities, which are masked by traditional binary analyses. For example, “left v right” misrepresents a much more complex reality, where, for example, people may simultaneously hold left wing economic, and right wing social, views. They demonstrate that in the 2015 and 2017 elections and the Brexit referendum, clan membership was a more accurate predictor of voting behaviour than socio-economic group.

Six clans, which account for two thirds of the electorate, are strongly associated with leave or remain positions. Because their positions are rooted in fundamental values, they are the least likely to change their views.

  • “Remainers”: In three clans the clear majority of members voted remain (by 39, 67 and 82%). These three clans represent 30% of the electorate, and their values are international, broadly left wing on social policy and relaxed/positive about migration.
  • “Leavers”: In three clans a clear majority voted leave (by 50, 66, and 69%). These three clans represent 33% of the electorate, and support a small state, feel strongly about British institutions and are conservative on social issues. Some have socialist views on the economy, but they are opposed to migration and multiculturalism.

In terms of future policy, it is the other four clans whose positions are most interesting, although they are the least interested in politics. Nevertheless they form the battleground for any new referendum campaign:

NHS – “Notting Hill Society” (10% of the electorate: 52:48% for remain).

The most pro-business of all clans. Mixing a modern form of conservatism (associated with Cameron and Osborne) on the environment and society, with traditional views on family life and British institutions. Relatively positive on migration and multiculturalism. This is the oldest of these four clans (the leave associated clans are all rather older).

For the NHS clan, the key issues probably relate to the impact of Brexit on business and trade, and the impact on environmental regulation.

MWL – “Modern Working Life” (7%: 52:48% for remain))

Strong believers in the value of hard work and social mobility, supporting the view that it is always possible to achieve your goals, so long as you work hard. They tend to adopt left-of-centre economic values, but on balance they believe individuals, not others, should be responsible for their own financial well-being, and tend to hold liberal views on the environment, LGBT rights and gender equality. They are also moderately positive about immigration. This is the youngest clan and the one who swung dramatically from Conservative to Labour in the 2017 election (by 21%).

For the MWL clan, the key arguments are likely to be around social (and perhaps geographical) mobility, the opportunities to work and issues of environment and equality.

SAR – “Strength, Agreeable & Respect” (9%: 58:42% for leave)

These tend to favour authority and discipline, leaning in favour of a ‘just desserts’ approach to crime and punishment, and a tendency to favour authority and discipline in various areas of public policy, including defence, human rights and the justice system. They have a preference for a strong and often uncompromising state, which extends to areas such as defence and Britain’s place in the world. Mixed views on most other areas of social and economic policy.

For the SAR clan, the key arguments are likely to be around defence and security, and Britain’s place in the world.

APY – Apathy (10%: 52:48% for leave)

Generally uninterested and disengaged from politics, with very few strong views on many issues. They are unlikely to have given much thought to most economic, political and societal questions, either because they are simply not interested, or because they feel alienated by the current state of our politics.

This clan are least likely to turnout for any future referendum, and it is difficult to identify what issues might change this. However, they should not be ignored since, in the 2016 Referendum, a significant number of people who had never voted before chose to do so, perhaps because in a referendum every vote counts (unlike most votes under the normal UK “first past the post” electoral system).

 

[1] https://www.bmgresearch.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/CONFIDENTIAL_FRACTURED_POLITICS_TURNER_M_ET_AL_2018_V4.pdf

[2] http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/brexit/2018/10/23/remainer-or-leaver-the-emergence-of-the-brexit-identity-prism/

Why has Labour abandoned remain?

I posted the same question twice on the Labour Party Facebook forum. This is my response to the extensive debate.

Why is the Labour Party considering leaving the EU when during the referendum campaign we believed that Brexit was not in the national interest, and would especially hurt those who have suffered most from the last years of Tory rule? We campaigned for remain and reform. What has changed?

Thank you to the hundred plus people who have offered comments. I have read them all and thought about them. This is my conclusion. There are really only two answers, and one tactical argument.

The first argument is that it would be impossible to implement our Manifesto under EU rules. My answer to that is twofold: that good legal opinion does not agree (http://renewal.org.uk/blog/eu-law-is-no-barrier-to-labours-economic-programme  ); and because we are so closely linked, economically and geographically, to the EU, it will continue to influence what we can do, we just won’t have a vote in what will be “their” rules any more. We will no longer be one of the leading players in EU policy, and the “reform” bit of our agenda will be out of our control. Given the damaging economic impact of any Brexit scenario, this is quite as likely to obstruct our manifesto as existing EU regulations.

The second argument is that people knew what they voted for, and an absolute majority rules. This is more complex. There are a raft of arguments, but fundamentally, it is clear that the deal which the Government negotiates (if it manages to) will bear little resemblance to the promises made by the leave campaign (embodied in our six tests). Many of those promises were incompatible with each other, and some are impossible (like a solution to the Northern Irish border with the UK outside the EU). The only thing which will definitely happen is that we will lose our votes in Europe (our MEPs, our seat on the Council, our Commissioner, and our place in the innumerable working groups and projects which are shaping Europe).  So what people will get if we accept the Tory deal will not be what they can have voted for. This is as much a betrayal of the “will of the people” as reversing the Brexit decision without a vote.

Most of the people who voted were not stupid, or racists (or any of the other abuse which people have fabricated about them). Many had thought seriously about the issue, but since they are not going to be offered what they voted for they are entitled to say whether they want it, or whether it would be better to stay with what we have, to work for reform from inside the tent.

Finally, the tactical point. Since the general election the Tories have been desperate to blame Labour for their failings. Any appearance of backing a remain campaign before we could see the offer would have been a gift to them, so we were right to avoid this by appearing to prevaricate. However, less than 6 months from Brexit day, we should be clear that when Parliament rejects the government’s deal, and we seek a general election, our manifesto must be clearly in favour of putting the question back to the people. This is the best that Brexit can mean, are you sure that it is what you want?

 

Is Labour running out of time on Brexit

The Labour Party strategy on Brexit is to wait to see the deal which the government negotiates with the EU, measure it against the “six tests”, and decide whether to support it. This maximises confusion in the Conservative Party and the prospect of a General Election. However, I believe that time is running out, the prospects of an election are very thin, and the Party should be taking a stronger and more public line.

The six tests were all proposed by leading leave campaigners, but it is clear that no possible Brexit agreement can meet them. So the Party will vote against the government’s deal when it comes to Parliament. However, since the Conservatives, with the DUP, have an absolute majority, we will lose and it will go ahead. If there are any rebels, they are likely to cancel each other out. The result will probably be bad, and the Conservatives will have to take the blame, but by then Brexit will be over.

The Labour hope is that the Conservative Party will implode over this, leading to a General Election and a Labour government. However, losing the vote in Parliament does not bring down the government. Under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act a General Election is only called by a two thirds majority for a motion in the Commons, or if the government lose a vote of no confidence and no other leader can form a government. Either way, Labour strategy relies on Tory rebels, voting in the knowledge that they are probably putting Jeremy Corbyn in No 10, and I don’t believe that even the most rabid Brexiters will risk that. That is the gamble that Theresa May has made, and I think she will win.

Meanwhile, the clock ticks on. At the end of March next year we will crash out of the EU unless one of three things happens:

  • A deal is agreed. The most likely deal now is going to be a version of the Norway agreement. People will be told that it is “real” Brexit, and many will accept that. However, it will not satisfy hard Brexiters, nor those Remainers who care about the UK’s votes and influence.
  • The Article 50 notice is withdrawn. This is legally possible, but Parliament is unlikely to risk doing this for fear of appearing to defy “the will of the people”, unless a referendum has given authority.
  • The EU agree to an extension of the Article 50 period This is only likely to be acceptable to the EU if they can see a prospect that we might decide to remain.

Virtually all MPs, and all interested parties in the UK and the rest of the EU agree that crashing out would be catastrophic, but the UK government claims to be preparing for it, and some commentators in Europe are beginning to think it is the only, or simplest, solution (since they already have systems in place for working with third countries).
The longer this takes, the less likely a deal (including remaining in the EU) is. There are a number of severe constraints:

  • There are 8 months left (including the dead summer holiday period, the party conference season and Christmas).
  • The EU says that 6 months are needed for ratification of any deal by the 30+ Parliaments and the institutions of the EU.
  • A UK General Election requires weeks of preparation, and is difficult to hold in mid-winter.
  • A Referendum requires at least two months for campaigning.
  • In May there are elections for the European Parliament. The UK’s seats have already been distributed among the 27. Withdrawing Article 50 would severely disrupt the process.

Theresa May is gambling that the threat of a Corbyn government will, in the end, keep her MPs in line, and that if she drags the process out long enough, the only feasible option will be to accept a soft, Norway style deal. By delaying taking a clear stand, Labour risks us falling into that by default. Is that what we believe is best for the country, and the people?

The Labour Party position on Brexit

On 19th May, Keir Starmer, Shadow Secretary of State for Brexit spoke at the Fabian Society Summer Conference. I found this the clearest and most explicable account I have read of the Labour Party’s position, and for the first time I felt I understood the logic behind it – even if I disagree with it.
The key points are that the Labour Party:

– is concentrating on supporting the Lords amendments which give control back to Parliament.
– remains committed to its six tests of the Brexit deal (all of which have been promised by Theresa May), and will vote against the motion to approve the deal if it fails to meet them.
– is not supporting the People’s Vote campaign, because the timescales make it impractical, and polling suggests it might deliver a divisive and inconclusive result.

However, nothing is ruled out, since things can change rapidly.

My full note is at: The Labour position Fabians May 18 web

What next on Brexit?

During the last year, my thinking about our relationship with the European Union has been evolving. I remain convinced that leaving is a major act of political, social, and economic self harm (in that order), which will damage most many of those who voted to leave. This is a (long) account of my views. I have written it against the background of a debate in the Broadland Constituency Labour Party about what the Party should do, but has wider implications.

A political project

For me, membership of the European Union is about values, peace and solidarity with our friends and neighbours. The European Union is probably the most ambitious political project ever attempted. It set out to create a community of shared values, among countries of widely differing sizes and cultures, operating in 24 official languages. Above all it set out to prevent Europe sliding back into the internal warfare which had been the norm for centuries, culminating in the horrors of two twentieth century wars. Since its creation we have seen the establishment of democracy across all the member states, and the longest period of peace in Europe since the Roman Empire. No one under 80 today has any real experience of what it was like to live with war, and we have come to think of peace as normal: it is not: we live in an increasingly dangerous world, where we need friends, not enemies.

One of the strategies of the Brexit campaigners, over the decades they have been fighting the battle, is to claim that the EU is fundamentally an economic union, and can therefore be judged by economic outcomes: a weighing of costs and benefits. But this is a (deliberate) mistake.

The EU was founded on a set of fundamentally social democratic values. It supports democracy, citizens’ rights, equitable treatment of countries and organisations. Through the EU, the member states agree major, overarching goals for public policy. It recognises the role of government, at regional, national and European levels in regulating markets and ensuring fair treatment for all players. It aims to address big and complex issues which extend beyond the boundaries of nation states, like climate, demographic, technological and industrial change. It also aims to make it easy for people throughout the Union to behave as if they were in one country, with no barriers to movement, working and living.

A democratic institution

In any democracy there are competing views, interests and strategies. Good governance depends on maintaining a delicate balance between majority and minority interests, and between member states and the collective Union. Of course, it cannot always satisfy everyone. Complex compromises are essential. Sometimes this involves long implementation timescales, sometimes exceptions are made for individual member states. Reaching agreement with all the parties and countries can be mind numbingly slow and tedious, but is still better than war. Inevitably disputes arise about the interpretation of EU laws and regulations, and The European Court of Justice (to which each member state appoints a judge) exists to adjudicate on such disputes.

Negotiating and agreeing solutions involves complex work by the EU’s civil service, the Commission (which is a relatively small for the size of the task: about the size of a middle sized UK Government Department). Sometimes the Commission funds research to understand the challenges and possible solutions.  Where solutions call for significant legislation or regulation, the decisions are taken jointly by the member states (through the Council), and the elected Parliament. To pass, legislation must be supported by a majority of countries, representing a majority of the population, as well as a majority in the Parliament. Over time, the processes and institutions have evolved to increase transparency, accountability and democratic influence.

The Euro is a special, and difficult issue in the debate on the EU. In retrospect, many believe that it was a mistake to set it up without an accountable democratic system of governance, and the UK was certainly wise to opt out (another example of how the EU can adapt to a particular nation’s issues). The result has been inappropriate lending policies followed by the imposition of punitive regulations on some member states. These problems have been exacerbated by the economic crisis of 2008 (not the fault of the EU), and as a result, public confidence in the Euro, and the EU as a whole has been badly shaken. Those who criticise the lack of democratic accountability in the management of the Euro have a case, but the Euro is not the EU.

Losing our influence

Since we voted to join the European Economic Community in 1975, the UK has always been one of the most influential members. Because it is the third largest country by population, very few significant decisions are taken without UK support, usually in alliance with Germany and France. On issues of particular sensitivity to the UK we have been given special treatment (exclusion from the Schengen Agreement on free movement, and from the Euro, and a large rebate on our notional subscriptions). British diplomats, lawyers and civil servants have a high reputation and significant roles in the workings of the EU. When the Lisbon Treaty established the role of High Representative on Foreign Affairs (to speak for the EU on international issues) the first appointee was a British Labour politician. It is ironic that it was a British lawyer who drafted Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, with the aim of appeasing the right wing of the British Conservative Party.

The suggestion that the UK has no influence over laws and regulations is a myth. Between 1999 and 2016, the EU passed 2592 laws. In the Council of Ministers, the UK voted in favour of 95% of these (2466). The level of disagreement is, of course, higher than this, since drafts are only presented to Parliament and the Council after lengthy diplomatic preliminary work, where some ideas are removed before even being published. UK Ministers have sometimes voted against the majority of elected UK MEPs.

The EU’s evolving mission

Meanwhile, the EU continues to evolve, and will go on doing so after/if the UK leaves.  The Union has agreed a set of ten future policy priorities:

  • Jobs, growth and investment
  • Digital single market
  • Energy union and climate
  • Internal market
  • Deeper and fairer economic and monetary union
  • A balanced and progressive trade policy to harness globalisation
  • Justice and fundamental rights
  • Migration
  • A stronger global actor
  • Democratic change

All of these issues matter to the UK, and to the electorate who voted in the referendum. If we stay within the EU, we would have the opportunity to influence the direction of these policies. Outside, we have no voice, but the EU will move on without us. For the last 43 years we have been “rule makers” in EU policy, and if we leave we will necessarily become “rule takers”, since our economy depends so heavily of the EU, There is no option to ignore the policies of the EU. We are 60 million, the 27 countries are 440 million. It is absurd to think that we will continue to have as much influence over the issues which matter most to us after Brexit as we have now.

In 2019 elections will be held for the European Parliament. If Brexit goes ahead, the UK’s parliamentary seats will be redistributed among the other member states, and we will lose our democratic voice.

The EU and the member states

The EU is a collaborative club of member states, who join for mutual benefit, and agree to contribute to the costs. The success of the common enterprise depends on everyone playing by the rules, but being prepared to tolerate compromises to meet the particular needs of individual states.

What is not negotiable is commitment to the “four freedoms” (freedom of movement of goods, services, money and people) which gives equal rights to all citizens, companies and organisations, and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, which adjudicates in disputes.

If any member state refuses to abide by these rules, it acquires an unfair advantage over the other members, which is precisely what the Union was created to avoid. It is therefore essential to the survival of the entire enterprise that no country breaks these rules. The EU has no interest in “punishing” the UK if it leaves, but it cannot reasonably be expected to agree to the UK having an unfair advantage over its members. If everyone leaves the club and expects to keep the benefits, there is no longer a club!

What did people vote for?

The Brexit referendum offered a simple binary choice. Campaigners on both side offered visions of the consequences of leaving or remaining, but most of this was inevitably speculation, and much was exaggerated. In a real sense, no one could know what they were voting for.

Opinion polls since have tried to investigate what people thought they were voting for, and the picture is not at all clear. Some thought it was primarily about immigration, while others prioritised “control” (though whose control over what was much less clear). One significant poll shortly after the referendum illustrates the problem. When asked whether people would prioritise remaining in the Single Market over controlling immigration, the balance was 2:1 in favour of remaining in the Single Market: a policy which the Government has repeatedly rejected.

What outcomes are possible?

In principle there can only be four outcomes from the Brexit negotiations:

“No deal”

meets the requirement to honour the referendum result, but it is inconceivable, and no one seriously believes that it will happen. If all existing agreements and treaties lapsed on 29th March 2019, there would be no legal authority to adjudicate in disputes between the UK and the rest of the EU, and businesses would be unlikely to risk operating across the border. Air traffic would stop, existing EU contracts would be in limbo, imports of medical isotopes for cancer treatment would stop, and financial services based in the UK would no longer be able to do business in the rest of the EU. The Irish border would be closed, with a threat to political stability. The legal status and rights of UK citizens living in the EU, and EU citizens living in the UK would be unclear. World Trade Organisation tariffs would be introduced immediately on UK exports to the EU (and probably EU imports to the UK), causing major delays at ports, given the need for large numbers of additional customs checks. Import delays would provoke serious food shortages. If businesses believed that this was at all likely, the emergency plans required to protect their commercial interests might cause significant unemployment and social disruption.

Soft Brexit

can also meet the requirement to “leave”, though Brexit campaigners differ in what compromises they would accept. There are several variants of “soft Brexit” (including Norway, Canada, Switzerland), but all involve “cherry picking” which bits of EU rules and institutions we remain in, and what we pay for the privilege. All depend on the willingness of the other member states to agree, and all require us to renounce our seats on the Council, Parliament, Commission and Court of Justice, and to give up our votes on laws, regulations and the future direction of the Union. To continue to cooperate on issues like medicines, crime and air traffic we would need to create a large number of new institutions to parallel those which we are members of as members of the EU. We would need to create a new body to adjudicate in disputes, to replace the ECJ. Any realistic version of “soft Brexit” would thus be very expensive to implement and while it would satisfy the requirement to “leave”, it would not actually increase control over anything significant.

Stop Brexit

is still an option, but would clearly not honour the expectations of those who voted for Brexit. Up until 29th March 2019, the UK can withdraw its notice to leave, and return to its previous status. The UK would retain unrestricted access to the EU market, and benefit from the EU’s trade agreements with 70 odd other countries either agreed or in active negotiation. In return it must continue to contribute to the budget and subscribe to the four freedoms. Although Parliament has the constitutional right to decide to stop the Brexit process, it is unlikely to do so for fear of punishment by the electorate for abandoning the “will of the people”. It therefore requires either a substantial change in public opinion (which is not yet evident) or a new mandate (through a general election or a new referendum on the terms on offer).

Leave and return.

The UK might decide to leave the EU on one of the bases listed above, and then, after some years, change its mind. Opinion polling suggests that public opinion is quite likely to support this, since opposition to membership is far greater among older people. However, under EU law, the UK would have to apply like any new applicant state, and abide by the rules. This would probably require us to join Schengen and the Euro, and lose the current budget rebate. This would be a very expensive option.

The Labour Party’s policy

Finally, a comment on the parochial interests of the UK Labour Party. The last two years have shown the extraordinary irresponsibility of the British Conservative Party, prepared to put at risk the UK’s economy, social welfare and standing in the world (all issues they claim to care about), to deal with an internal party squabble. Once again, they have demonstrated that retaining control of government in the party interest outbids any national interest. Against this, the Labour Party needs to be a strong voice for what is best for the UK as a whole. This should be a principled position, not based on our chances of tipping out a weak and divided government, desirable as that is.

Respected legal opinion is that nothing in the 2017 Labour Manifesto is prohibited by EU laws. Where there is any doubt, our chances of changing things are greater as members than as outsiders. It is also clear that there are many things that some on the political right would like that are prevented by membership. Freedom from EU laws and regulations would enable a Conservative UK government to repeal legislation protecting workers’, citizens’, and consumers’ rights. It would also protect us from the EU’s plans to regulate tax havens. It is not a coincidence that the leave campaign was led and funded by some of the richest people in the country, and supported by print media owned by tax exiles.

Conclusion

The referendum was limited, but legitimate. Although only 37% of the electorate voted leave, people were told that that a simple majority of those voting would be sufficient result, and 52% of them chose leave. They were told conflicting things about whether the result would be binding on the government, and about what leaving might mean. Only when the current negotiations are complete will anyone know what the real choice is.
Parliament has the constitutional right to stop Brexit when it sees the result of the negotiation, but to do so would be politically dangerous, not only for parties and MPs but for social cohesion and the national interest. I therefore believe that Parliament requires a new mandate on the terms actually available. This could be achieved by:

  • a general election where the parties took distinct clear positions, for and against Brexit on the terms negotiated
  • a general election where one party at least campaigned for a referendum on the terms negotiated
  • a referendum on the terms negotiated, without a general election

Each of these has risks and advantages, but to allow this government, with no Parliamentary majority, to put the future of our security, economy and rights at risk to resolve internal party disputes would be the height of irresponsibility.

The clock is ticking. The terms must be clear by October to allow them to be ratified by the other member states. Any of these three options is likely to require some extension of the Article 50 period beyond March 2019, and the other member states might be sympathetic to agreeing this, since most of them would prefer us to remain members, However, this causes problems for the European Parliament elections due in May 2019. It is vital, in the national interest, that the Labour Party makes its position as clear as possible, as quickly as possible.

Its our future: give us the choice!

In a democracy, we elect a Government, and if we don’t like what they do, we vote them out.
Leaving the European Union is not like that: once we have left, its over for us, our children and grandchildren, so it is important to get it right.
Since the Referendum, people have seen how complicated it is to leave the EU. Although many people simply want the Government to “get on with it”, a growing number are having second thoughts, and think we should have a vote on the final deal.
When we voted in the Referendum the choice was simple – “leave” or “remain”. But what “leave” meant could not be clear, since no country has ever left before. With a “soft Brexit” we would carry on much as before, but just give up our voting rights and the protection of the European Court of Justice. With a “hard Brexit” we would break all our ties, which almost all experts (whether they are “remainers” or “leavers”) think would be disastrous for our living standards and quality of life.
The Government hopes for something in between. It believes that it can negotiate a deal with most of the advantages of membership and few of the costs. The other 27 countries have repeatedly made it quite clear that they will not agree to this – if you leave a club you give up the right to make the rules. In the first round of negotiation, the UK Government has had to accept almost all the proposals made by the EU, on money, citizens’ rights and the Irish border. It is likely that the second phase will go the same way.
It is now clear that if we want to continue to trade with the countries of the EU (who represent around half of our international trade) there will be a price. We will lose our vote on European laws and regulations, but will still have to abide by many of them. Immigration will probably not fall, because our economy needs more nurses, doctors, chefs, and fruit pickers than we have here. We will still have to contribute to the EU budget as a price of keeping the benefits of free trade. We will lose the right to travel freely across Europe, the protection of our human rights, and a host of other benefits from free healthcare in Europe to access to nuclear isotopes for medical use.
Membership of the EU has been good for Britain, and we have been very influential in European policy and legislation. The EU has helped secure peace across the member states for the first time for centuries. It has given us environmental protection, and high standards for food and consumer products. European regulations, and the adjudication of the European Court of Justice have ensured that UK businesses can compete on a level playing field with their European competitors, and that individuals are protected against unfair treatment by employers and their own government. Its funding programmes have invested in the poorest communities in Britain to support growth and development, when our own Government did not.
Most of the problems we face, and which probably provoked the “leave” vote, were caused by our Governments, not by “Europe”. The massive growth in inequality of wealth and income was a result of our own Government’s failure to manage the economy and taxation. Under the rules of the EU (which we helped create) we could have supported our steel industry, maintained a nationalised railway, and prevented privatisation in the NHS. Within the EU’s rules on “free movement” we could have managed migration by people who do not find employment, in the way that many other EU countries do – our Government chose not to do so.
Since the Referendum it has become clear that the Government wants to “take back control” of our laws and borders, but to give that control, not to voters, or to our elected MPs, but to the Executive. Theresa May has repeatedly tried to bypass our elected MPs, resisting attempts to allow Parliament to vote on Brexit strategy, and hiding the Government’s own analysis of the effects of Brexit. This is not democracy.
For this reason, groups of concerned citizens across the UK have been coming together to campaign for a referendum on the deal which our Government negotiates, with a clear option to decide that the deal on offer will be worse for Britain and its people that staying in the EU (it is ironic that the people who will benefit most from staying in, are in the areas which voted most strongly to leave).
However, we live in a democracy, and if there is a clear vote in favour of leaving on the terms which the Government negotiates, I would accept that decision. What is unacceptable is for a Government without a Parliamentary majority to decide what is best for us.

My team: right or wrong

Why are people not changing their minds as the difficulties of Brexit become increasingly clear?

Since the referendum, exit negotiations have made almost no progress, and the Government is increasingly in disarray, with Ministers and MPs quarrelling about what they want, and what it might mean. Public dissatisfaction with progress has risen substantially, with a clear majority believing that the negotiations are being badly handled.

Yet public opinion remains stubbornly unchanged on the central issue. Those who voted to leave remain leavers, and many of those who voted remain accept the “will of the people” and believe that Brexit should happen, even if they believe it will be an economic and/or a social disaster.

Yet the “will of the people” is a lie, amplified by the passionate Brexiters and through the right wing press. Three quarters of the population (including those too young to vote, who will be most affected) did not vote for Brexit. Two thirds of the electorate did not vote for Brexit (either by voting against or not voting at all). Those who did vote divided almost equally between leavers and remainers, with a very small margin in favour of leave. A minority of MPs voted for Brexit, and two thirds of Labour supporters and voters did so.

It is also clear that those who did vote for Brexit did so for a wide range of, often incompatible, reasons, and the Government has already conceded that many of these will not be achieved. Immigration will not fall, because the economy and public services depend heavily on immigrant labour. There will not be more money for public services, since all commentators agree that the short term effect will be an economic contraction, as we see with UK growth falling behind the rest of the EU. “Control” by the people or by Parliament will not be increased, as we lose our MEPs and our seat on the Council of the EU, which will continue to set the rules for much of our trade, and the Government centralises power in the hands of Ministers. We will not see an expansion of trade  with the rest of the world, as we struggle to renegotiate (from a position of weakness) the many trade deals which we are party to as EU members.

What is the explanation for this effective support for Brexit, despite the fact that it  is increasingly difficult to do?

Firstly, most people do not understand much about the EU, and do not care much about it. Until two years ago, when opinion polls asked about what issues concern people, Europe always figured low down the list, far below the NHS, housing, schools, and employment. During the referendum campaign the EU rose up the list, but it has now returned to its previous low place. So until the referendum people took little interest. The achievement of the leave campaigners was to harness these other concerns to the idea of the EU, and persuade people that leaving the EU would in some way solve these problems, despite the fact that the EU has little or no impact on any of them.

Because most people know little, and care little, about the EU per se, when forced to take a simple yes/no position their decision was more emotional than rational.  Because it was a binary choice, people came to see it as like a football match in which one side wins and the other loses. And like football supporters, they feel they have chosen their team, and they support it, even when it is badly managed, and constantly defeated. True supporters do not abandon their team just because it loses matches.

This is why evidence of the difficulties and the losses we might face from Brexit carry no weight. Opponents at home, or in the rest of Europe, are seen as an enemy to be defeated (despite the Government’s rhetoric about “friends and partners”). Evidence of failure is seen as a new challenge to be fought against, not an argument for compromise. What the leavers want, with a passion, is to leave, whatever that might mean, and they are quite willing to accept changes in policy in the interests of winning.  It seems that many, perhaps most, leavers will accept continued migration, devaluation and economic decline, perhaps even unemployment, in order to win. Furthermore, they have been repeatedly told, and they believe, that they represent the will of the people: all right thinking people are on their side, and the rest are traitors.

This presents all political parties with a challenge. Because the referendum was set up on a simple majority of those voting, and a marginal majority has come to be seen as the will of the people, they feel (wrongly in my view) that it would be undemocratic to resist. So ardent, and no so ardent, remainers support leaving as “democratic”. For the large majority of professional politicians (who were remainers), the task has become to find a solution which demonstrates that we have “left” while doing the least social, economic, and diplomatic damage.

For the Conservatives this involves appeasing the extreme Brexiters, who for a range of ideological and personal reasons seriously want to leave. Although they remain a minority of Conservative MPs, and probably Conservative members, they will be constantly alert to betrayal, and they do understand the detail on issues they care about. With the right wing media, they will cry foul at the first opportunity, particularly if this fits with personal career advancement.

For the Labour Party the problem is different. Because the public opinion contest is not a rational one, anything which looks like resisting the will of the people will be seen (however spuriously) as betrayal of democracy.  Despite the fact that a clear majority of members, supporters and MPs were remainers, and probably a majority remain so, the dangers of appearing to reject a democratic vote are seen as too great. Hence the current position, to repeat endlessly that we are leaving, while trying to ensure that we travel the shortest possible distance from membership. The risk is that the endless repetition of accepting the will of the people reinforces the belief that leaving is the will of the people, when this is plainly untrue. It is appeasing bullies.

The hope for Labour remainers is that somehow public opinion will shift to stopping Brexit, but the evidence is slim, for the reasons I have outlined. People have taken sides, and will die rather than admit that they were wrong.

So what would a Labour minimal Brexit look like? We would remain, for at least a “transition” period and perhaps indefinitely, in the single market and the customs union, because of the huge trade advantages, and because this is the only way of resolving the Irish border problem. This would require us to retain free movement of people and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, membership of most or all of the host of collaborative and regulatory institutions like the Medicines Agency, and continue to contribute to the budget. The Government has already conceded that the volume of migration will not change, we will simply have “control”. Historically, the UK has chosen not to use the controls on movement which are available to it. As Belgium and Luxembourg demonstrate, “free movement” does not mean uncontrolled free movement, or unlimited access to housing or welfare benefits. The ECJ is a totemic issue for the far right, but most people care little about it. As long as we trade with the EU at all we will need a system to adjudicate on disputes, and it would be wasteful to create a parallel court to shadow the ECJ on this. On the budget, most people have no conception of the numbers: that our current contribution is tiny as a proportion of Government spending. Most will accept with a shrug a “divorce settlement” of £60bn rather that £20bn, since these are numbers beyond individual comprehension, and the scope for fudging over time is considerable.

The great and sad irony, is that the one thing we must do to demonstrate that we have left, is resign our formal democratic influence on the EU, its policies and rules. It is inconceivable that people will accept a Brexit which retains our seats on the Parliament and the Council. So we give up our position as one of the “big three” nations, without whose consent little has happened in the EU until now, and become “rule takers” like Norway, obliged to implement rules which we have no say in formulating. When this becomes clear, it might be the tipping point when people recognise this nonsense for what it is. It might be too late.