Opinion

Where’s Labour?

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Keir Starmer’s U-turn on EU free movement: we need to understand why.

A few people have been complaining about Brexit in the past couple of weeks, from the fishermen who find that, although they can now catch loads more fish, they can’t sell it, to the people of Dover who are up in arms about a tract of greenbelt land being turned into a giant lorry park. Teething problems, perhaps?

Then, out of the blue, Keir Starmer announces a U-turn on his commitment to restore free movement of EU workers when a Labour government is returned to power. Given that in 2019 over a million people gathered in London to protest against the loss of rights such as this, it was surprising that Starmer’s comments provoked little reaction.

In response to this, Tees Valley Monitor (TVM), contacted local Labour MP’s asking for comment, and prepared an article. The gist of the article was that economic imbalance in this country over the past forty years has given rise to stagnation in the North East, and with it, depopulation. We are led to believe that the years of stagnation are over and it is therefore important to take account of the fact that economic growth and inward migration go hand in hand, so anything that stifles that migration is counter-productive from an economic point of view.

The article went out on Twitter and Facebook a few days later. The response? Subdued, very subdued, with occasional mild admonition.  This was somewhat surprising given that TVM has a fairly loyal following of liberal/left sympathisers on both platforms. One of the few comments made was: “I think TVM should stick to reporting facts rather than political speculating.” Here was someone on the defensive. There seem, in fact, to be a lot of people on the defensive.

The two MP’s who responded to our request for comment, Andy McDonald and Alex Cunningham, made generic statements, and while I am grateful to them for their contribution, I can’t help but notice that neither referred directly to Starmer’s action. I then started to ask around, about where I might look for comment from Labour supporters about the U-turn. This largely drew a blank, except for one person who reported that, in private, some people are seething. In private, that’s important.

Then an article by former MEP Richard Corbett  appeared in Labour List , in which he lists the reasons why Labour cannot just ignore Brexit. 

Having been castigated once already this week for ‘political speculating’, I’m going to risk doing it again.  It is that an uneasy truce has emerged within the party, that public bickering over a variety of issues has been suspended, to be replaced, however, by the gnashing of teeth behind closed doors.  Tensions remain within the Labour Party. Corbett does not address a left-right divide, but the long list he gives of reasons why Brexit has to stay on the agenda, militates against adopting a pragmatic ‘it’s-done-now-so-we’ll-just-have-to-get-on-with-it’ approach.

The response to Starmer’s recent statements indicate that there has been some kind of trade-off, whereby the price of unity is the absence of discussion, and an acquiescence over Starmer’s apparent preference for pragmatism. In reality that is a dangerous strategy.


Few would deny that Starmer has made massive strides in restoring effective parliamentary opposition. And effective opposition underpins good governance, even in the best of times. But, not to put too fine a point on it, these are not the best of times. If the government’s strategy for dealing with the pandemic has been lamentable, the reason for that may be because it has treated it as an irritating obstacle, to be put to one side as quickly as possible so that it can get on with its real agenda of implementing Brexit. The dismissal of Dominic Cummings in November should not blind us to the fact that the architects of the One True Brexit are still in charge; that the authors of Britannia Unchained are now in the cabinet; that Singapore Britain remains the goal. This is a government of extremists. And pragmatism, trying to look relaxed in public about Brexit, does not beat extremism.

Britain’s fishermen famously backed Brexit. As did 62% of the people of Dover. Both have now received their dividend, while we, in the North East, still await ours.  This is not the time to sit quietly.

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