The shadow Brexit Secretary, Keir Starmer, has written an article in today's Observer, covered also by the paper's splash, which provides some clarity over Labour's position as far as the direction Brexit negotiations should go in. Note that I say some clarity.
Mr Starmer tells us that 'constructive ambiguity, David Davis’s description of the government’s approach, can only take you so far', and that 'the harsh realities of the negotiating process and the glacial pace of progress in the first two rounds of talks' have helped to discredit the 'illusion' that transitional agreements are not necessary. He therefore asserts:
"Labour has repeatedly emphasised that in order to avoid a cliff edge for our economy there will need to be a time-limited transitional period between our exit from the EU and the new lasting relationship we build with our European partners.
Labour would seek a transitional deal that maintains the same basic terms that we currently enjoy with the EU. That means we would seek to remain in a customs union with the EU and within the single market during this period. It means we would abide by the common rules of both."
The first of these two paragraphs frustrates me somewhat. It tends to imply, as with most discussion around pursuing the EEA, that the Single Market option is solely about avoiding economic collapse and that no positive case can be made for it. This is fundamentally dishonest, but more on this in a later post. The second paragraph doesn't diverge nearly as starkly as the parliamentary Labour Party might like to think. The Tories, too, seek transitional arrangements, like a temporary customs arrangement, but outside the Single Market. There is some difference to the immediate positions of both the major parties, but Labour aren't mobilising effectively and are missing important opportunities. Of course, I am absolutely happy that the opposition is redirecting attention towards the many uses of the Single Market. But there are problems.
Mr Starmer only provides reasoning for the policy announcement in his piece. He doesn't shed any light at all on how the party or country might go about reaching such an agreement. He talks about the number of 'significant advantages' to the approach, not entirely without merit, but since the Article 50 period has but a year and a half left, I doubt Labour will be able to influence government policy or get into power before Brexit day arrives. And God forbid we have yet another election. The shadow Brexit Secretary's article lacks any indicator of practical application.
He then goes on to say:
"By remaining inside a customs union and the single market in a transitional phase we would be certain that goods and services could continue to flow between the EU and the UK without tariffs, customs checks or additional red tape."
...which again doesn't bare complete resemblance with reality. Much like the government's position paper on customs last week, Starmer confuses customs cooperation with Customs Union. They are separate concepts both in terms of real world effects and treaty provision. There is no economic or political necessity whatsoever to stay in the Customs Union. The CU predates the establishing of the Single Market, but Article 10 of the EEA Agreement renders the initial use of the CU redundant. The only residual importance retained by the CU is a Common External Tariff (CET) and its role in accumulating revenue which is collected by member states and sent to Brussels as part of a membership fee.
And that reminds me, could somebody make it clear to our politicians that leaving the EU means leaving the Customs Union? Still so many fail to recognise that to be of it requires membership and that it is tightly integrated into the treaties.
The Observer's Toby Helm, in his splashed report, argues:
"In a move that positions it decisively as the party of “soft Brexit”, Labour will support full participation in the single market and customs union during a lengthy “transitional period” that it believes could last between two and four years after the day of departure, it is to announce on Sunday."
I don't think Mr Helm is monitoring negotiations as closely as perhaps he ought to be. There is no 'decisive' positioning that I can see. One issue here is that Starmer's announcement in no way reflects the current stage of negotiations. The UK and Brussels are yet to crawl past even discussions of citizens rights and a financial settlement. Jumping the gun while everybody else is working at a snail's pace appears utterly pointless. The other problem I note is that, by virtue of their commitment to a transitional arrangement, Labour aren't committing to long-term, permanent support for Single Market membership, and thus are failing to establish any substantive divergence with Tory policy.
If we take a look back at this year's General Election results, we can see that Labour performed surprisingly well in more liberal, metropolitan parts of the country. Kensington's conversion was especially telling and seemed to demonstrate that voters aren't willing to give up on a softer Brexit and the Single Market without a fight. A safe Tory seat is not going to glow red overnight thanks to a pledge to renationalise the railways. The Single Market is a sharp dividing line throughout the UK and large pockets of the electorate can use it as a voting guide. Like geography, parliamentary debate must reflect this.
If Labour were cunning, they'd back EEA membership and rejoining EFTA. In doing so, they would guarantee the support of Remain voters and quite a number of Lib Dem voters, who remain largely opposed to a hard Brexit of any kind. But not just this. We also need to examine the effect that a hard Brexit will have on the Tories. Brexit is in many ways a poisoned chalice: in all likelihood it will expose the Conservative Party's very thin mantra that they are the party of economic strength.
I am not surprised that Theresa May is already thinking about stepping down. She failed to commandeer an election and will, in the end, be disgraced by her government's handling of our EU departure. I can't pretend to feel any sympathy for her. This is all her making. Even if you leave aside the events of 2016 and 2017, her political track record is spotty at best. She remains a fierce opponent of free expression and one of the most ban-happy politicians in recent memory.
The Labour Party must be able to sense this. If they can, then support for merely temporary membership of the Single Market is a squandered opportunity. Important too will their role be in pressuring David David on more pressing matters, such as the border with Ireland and enshrining the rights of EU citizens living in Britain. If Labour want to appear proactive, they need to jump back a few steps and rejoin the progress of negotiations, even if it means that in doing so, they find the picture as bleak and uninspiring as I do.