After whipping his MPs to support Boris Johnson’s bad deal, and then taking a vow of silence as a repenting remainer, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has spelled out how he would make Brexit “work”. This is good news. No amount of flag-waving can hide the damage being inflicted on the economy by Brexit, or the parliamentary inability to check ministerial power grabs. On Monday Sir Keir and the party’s Scottish leader, Anas Sarwar, made important speeches to address how Labour would deal with the constitutional and economic challenges that Brexit posed.
Sir Keir’s plan dealt with the acute problems the country faced. He was right to say Labour’s priority was to sort out the Northern Ireland protocol with an agri-food deal to remove most checks on trade. Labour’s leader ought to be thanked for saying that mutual recognition of professional qualifications must be negotiated; that Britain should be in EU science programmes; and that visa-free travel for musicians needs to be restored. The EU would be more conciliatory to a government it can trust. Sir Keir’s plans represent a pragmatic policy rather than the more revolutionary one sought by some pro-Europeans.
Polls suggest four in 10 Britons favour re-entering the EU. But Sir Keir does not want to restart the wars of the referendum. Rejoining the single market means market access but also accepting freedom of movement of workers. Being back in the EU customs union would require the UK to abandon its independent trade policy. These policies may be, in economic terms, attractive. A softer Brexit would help the UK. But such a policy would allow the Tories to paint Sir Keir as a rejoiner. This risks being an election-losing strategy, as winning Tory-held constituencies that voted for Brexit is a sine qua non for a Labour government. Sir Keir’s position is astute to the extent that it offers to meet remainers’ arguments without offending leavers.
Mr Sarwar’s call to replace the existing House of Lords with a senate of nations and regions is the most sweeping policy announcement made on Monday. He wants to disperse power from Westminster and abolish Britain’s anachronistic, unelected upper house. This is a laudable position. The irony is that with the Commons paralysed by Tory infighting, it has been the Lords which has exposed the government’s hoarding of EU powers meant to be used by politicians in Cardiff, Edinburgh and Belfast. Two acts – concerning the UK internal market and the country’s subsidy regime – have weakened the devolution settlement, keeping powers at Westminster that should have been used in other capitals to tailor policies to local needs. Another bill concerning public procurement is currently being boycotted by the Scottish government.
Peers can debate such matters, but as unelected politicians they are bound by the Salisbury convention from opposing the government on its manifesto commitments. Mr Sarwar’s plans for an upper chamber of elected politicians look similar to those proposed by Ed Miliband in 2014. Mr Miliband wanted an upper house populated with lawmakers in roughly proportionate numbers from Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the English regions. A smaller chamber would be an improvement – the UK has the world’s second largest decision-making body after China’s National People’s Congress – as would a more democratic body given that unelected peers have such sway in British politics. Brexit has produced few benefits. A more democratic Britain would be one.