This week, Keir Starmer has claimed that a move to rejoin the European single market would lead to political turmoil which would damage the economy by undermining business certainty and confidence. In the last few days, responding to a petition now signed by over 80,000 people, the government has issued a statement on why a public inquiry into the effects of Brexit is not necessary because Brexit is going according to plan. And a leading economist, Jonathan Portes, has replied to Starmer querying the ability of Starmer’s ‘make Brexit work’ plan to achieve more than a minor mitigation of the damage Brexit is inflicting on the UK economy. Finally, a new poll from Byline Times casts serious doubt on the electoral calculations underpinning Starmer’s policy.
Starmer has made little serious effort to persuade business or economists in any quantified detail of the benefits which his five-point plan can deliver. One could say that for a PM in waiting who finds it sufficient to assert without evidence or argument that “there is no case” for reversing Brexit, Starmer has been pretty off-hand about the business case for his own policy choices. Starmer is not wholly insulated from economic reality and rationality, and probably knows that the mitigations he can deliver via his proposed Brexit tweaks (some of which may well be unachievable or oversold, while others have no economic impact) will fall well short of eliminating the continuing damage of Brexit. In his July speech, Starmer promised, with a touch of tabloid-pleasing Brexiter posturing, to “tear down unnecessary barriers” between the UK economy and the Single Market, as though this feat could be accomplished by the unilateral initiative of a persistently hard-Brexiter UK Labour government. One suspects, and hopes, that Starmer privately understands why this is such a rash promise.
Fear of not regaining the Red Wall seats
Starmer, and his key advisors do not want to get into debates or details over economics because, for one thing, their policy is not mainly driven by economics in the first place; their key considerations are presentational, political and electoral – to be more precise, the fear of the Brexiter tabloid press and the faithful reproduction of its messages in reports from Red Wall focus groups conducted by Starmer’s Brexiter research lead, Deborah Mattinson. Yet there is a clear risk that this policy will fail even on its own terms, if it is presented to an electorate recently persuaded by widespread exposure to hunger and cold that economics does in fact matter.
In Oxford, some pro-European constituents have asked their MP, Anneliese Dodds to make available the Labour Party’s benefits analysis of its plan to make Brexit work. After several weeks, no reply has yet been forthcoming.
Is Starmer deceiving himself?
Jonathan Portes, writing this week in the Guardian, tells us there is a stable consensus among mainstream economists that Brexit has damaged the UK economy and will continue to do so. He suggests Starmer’s mitigations will achieve less than Teresa May’s rejected backstop deal, which itself would have reduced the damage of our eventual exit deal only by about a quarter. If Starmer is not being disingenuous, he is probably deceiving himself about his negotiating prospects in much the same ways as Tory Brexit negotiators from 2016 on about the concessions that can be obtained from the EU by a UK which insists on a full set of hard-Brexiter exceptionalist red lines.
Starmer’s calculation that he can win the next general election only by embracing Brexit has created a perverse situation where both major parties endorse a project which a growing majority of public opinion, expert opinion and business opinion (in the UK and beyond) all judge to have been a major disaster. This week we have a situation where implausible defences of Brexit have been issued both by the government (in response to a petition) and by Starmer. As the credibility of the Brexit scam continues to disintegrate, Starmer’s position is likely to come under increasingly open and public challenge, including from the direction of his own natural support base. Whoever is responsible in Starmer’s office for calculations of electoral expediency may at that point need to be asked to re-examine their data.
Jonathan Portes is not impressed by Starmer’s recent suggestion that a clear commitment to a hard ongoing Brexit will reassure prospective investors in the UK economy. Portes agrees with Starmer that rejoining Europe will not fix all Britain’s numerous and longstanding economic ills. He does however also make pretty clear that Starmer’s policy will not fix Brexit, and that the consequences of that failure could darken the future prospects for a progressive and democratic UK government taking office in already dark economic conditions under the constraints of Starmer’s current declared strategy.
- 47% of those planning to back Starmer’s party say they believe the Labour Leader will take Britain back into the EU, compared to just 28% who do not.
- Among all voters, 65% would be either more likely to vote Labour if it backed rejoining the EU, or that it would make no difference to their vote.
In the wake of the comments by Portes, one is not surprised to hear that “pushed by Byline to point to any economist who agrees with the Labour leader’s claims [about the lack of benefit to the UK economy of rejoining the single market], his spokespeople were unable to do so.”
This remarkable one-off poll result suggests something which if confirmed could be encouraging and reassuring. Starmer’s repeated imperious, categoric, bone-headed assertions of Labour’s iron commitment to Brexit are disbelieved by many of his prospective supporters. People seem to be inclined to support Starmer because of, rather than despite the fact that they do not take his position at face value. Perhaps the public’s populist sensibility is appeased by Starmer’s officious and ceremonious democratic obeisance to the People’s Will (2016 vintage), while not expecting him to take this piety to the extremity of echt Brexiter reality-denial.
We know that we are living in peculiar political times, such that all previous assumptions are tested and challenged. It seems that the public now feels best able to express its confidence in Starmer by saying that it does not believe him.
Whether Starmer can win a stable majority in a general election on a policy platform that a plurality of the electorate does not support or believe is a challenging and intriguing question.
Fact rather than fear
Some may prefer to think that Starmer is, as we say “on a journey” regarding Brexit. J. M. Keynes wrote a pamphlet in July 1925 on the decision to return the UK to the gold standard, called The Economic Consequences of Mr Churchill. Keynes predicted the return to gold (decided by Winston Churchill as Chancellor of the Exchequer) would lead to a “great loss of social income whilst it is going on, and will leave behind much social injustice when it is finished”. That decision was reversed six years later by a new government after the UK economy had fallen into deflation, recession and mass unemployment. Keynes also said that he changed his opinions when the facts changed. Byline’s polling data could suggest that the public may feel more warmth and respect for a politician who is seen to pay attention to evidence and change his mind on the basis of fact rather than fear.