This is the battle of our times: Labour will fight against a Hard Brexit – Keir Starmer

Keir Starmer


This is the speech given by Keir Starmer, shadow Brexit Secretary, at Bloomberg in London today.

I would like to thank Bloomberg for hosting this speech today.

At this time of year, it is natural to reflect.

To look back on the year that has passed and to look forward to the year ahead.

Years that are so full of significance that the year itself becomes a shorthand for a set of events are rare.

But there can be no doubt that 2016 will go down as one of the truly defining years of the 21st century.

Two years ago today – on 13 December 2014 – I was in St Pancras Church opposite Euston Station.

I was speaking to hundreds of Labour Party members, having just been selected to succeed Frank Dobson as Labour’s candidate for my home constituency of Holborn & St Pancras.

How different the world looked then.

Is it any wonder that we are still attempting to understand the world as it has now become and how we got to here?

But the real challenge is not just to interpret the past but to chart a path towards the future.

And that is my task for today.

Coming here to Bloomberg to deliver a speech on Britain and the European Union might be considered to be tempting fate.

When David Cameron spoke here in January 2013 he decided – as was so often the case – to put short-term political considerations ahead of the national interest.

My speech today will be guided by a different lodestar – our country’s interest.

I want to talk about how Labour should respond to Brexit in the national interest.

First, the context.

The Labour Party campaigned to stay in the EU.

I campaigned to stay in the EU.

The vote was to leave.

A high turnout.

A relatively close result.

But a clear result.

Yes, there were half-truths and untruths told in the campaign – none more egregious than the promise of £350 million a-week for our NHS that was daubed on the Vote Leave bus.

Yes, the tone of the referendum was deeply divisive, with social consequences that we all have a duty to tackle.

But we had a referendum and we have a clear result.

Had it gone the other way, those of us who passionately campaigned for Remain would have expected the result to be accepted and respected.

And that cuts both ways.

Now we face an uncertain future.

The first step is for the Prime Minister to distil the diverse and divergent views within her own party into a model of Brexit that can be negotiated with the EU.

I understand what a difficult position the Prime Minister is in.

Her predecessor, leading a government in which she served as Home Secretary, oversaw one of the greatest derelictions of duty of a British government in modern times.

The decision not to undertake any preparations whatsoever for a vote to leave has left the country without a plan and the government without direction.

The stakes could not be higher and the risks of getting this wrong should not be underestimated.

The Prime Minister must embark on the most difficult and complicated negotiations this country has undertaken since the end of the Second World War.

The outcome will determine not just our place in Europe but also our place in the world.

The role of the opposition is crucial.

This is not business as usual.

Setting out what Labour would do in 2020 does not suffice.

This is real opposition in real time.

By 2020, we will be living in a different world.

So how should Labour approach the task?

Some have argued that Labour should adopt the stance taken by the Liberal Democrats.

Frustrate the process: vote against the triggering of Article 50, block the road and somehow turn the clock back to 22 June this year.

Insofar as those advocating this course of action fear that in exiting the EU we risk becoming isolated, abandoning our values of tolerance and damaging our economy, I can understand the plea.

But it is the wrong response for three reasons.

First, as a matter of principle, no serious political party can claim to accept and respect the outcome of the referendum and in the next breath say that it will seek to prevent the Prime Minister from even starting the Article 50 negotiations.

A short point; but an important one.

Second, any political party with an ambition simply to frustrate the process cannot unify or heal the country.

Since I was appointed to my current role, I have travelled all over the UK – including to Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland.

I have met groups and individuals, held public events, talked to businesses large and small and discussed Brexit with different political parties and leaders.

From this, the evidence is clear: As a society we are more divided now than at any time in my life.

The divide is deep and, in some instances, it is bitter.

The surge in hate crime across the country and the reaction to the High Court judges who delivered judgment in the Article 50 case are testament to this.

In some London constituencies, 75 per cent of those voting in the referendum voted to Remain.

Yet in other areas the precise opposite is the case.

Last Friday, I was in the Midlands, where in some areas 75 per cent of those voting voted to leave.

A new fracture in politics has emerged.

And it is real.

The role of any responsible government ought to be to repair the breach.

Bring the country back together.


But from the start, the Prime Minister has only had a message for one side of the divide.

The Conservative Party failed to act in the national interest by not planning for Brexit.

And this Conservative Prime Minister has set aside the national interest once again by serving the interests of just one side of the divide.

It is a double dereliction of duty.

Extrapolating the view of a group within the 52 per cent, who were seriously concerned about freedom of movement and immigration, the Prime Minister has issued a ‘loud and clear’ warning that control over immigration will be prioritised over jobs, the economy and living standards.

I’m not going to shy away from the question of immigration, or to suggest that it was not a powerful factor in the referendum debate and outcome.

But by clinging to the discredited promise to get immigration into the tens of thousands, the Prime Minister is raising Brexit expectations which cannot be fulfilled without seriously harming our economy and public services.

Most reasonable people expect that the government should aim both for economic security and for the fair management of migration.

Not that it would sacrifice jobs and living standards to make arbitrary reductions in immigration.

Pursuing Brexit in the partisan interest might make Tory party management easier in the short run.

But as David Cameron could tell Theresa May: stray too far from the national interest, and you will be found out in the end.

The Prime Minister’s approach is also alienating the 48 per cent of voters who voted to remain in the EU.

They feel increasingly despondent and despairing.

The government is treating them as if they voted themselves out of their own future.

They did no such thing.

And no party that proceeds against our economic interests in such a divisive way deserves to govern for long.

The government should be negotiating in the national interest, pulling the 52 per cent and the 48 per cent together, imagining and striving for a future that works for the 100 per cent.

But those who advocate frustrating the Article 50 process are making the same mistake.

The Liberal Democrats hold out the false promise to the 48% of being able to frustrate the process.

But what have they got to say to the 52 per cent?

Absolutely nothing.

How can their stance unify the country?

It can’t.

And Labour should not fall into the same trap.

A party that can only speak to and for half a nation cannot heal the rift in our society.

A party that can only speak to and for half a nation does not deserve to govern.

A party that can only speak to and for half a nation cannot forge a bold inclusive vision of the future capable of working for everyone.

The same is true of UKIP’s approach to Brexit.

Immediate withdrawal, without even bothering to negotiate a deal.

The hardest of hard Brexits.

Not only would this be deeply divisive – ignoring the 48 per cent and many more besides – it would be disastrous for our economy, for jobs and for working class communities across the country.

That brings me to the third reason why Labour should not set its sights simply on frustrating the Article 50 process.

That is because to do so would mean walking away from the bigger battle that we must fight.

As we stand on the brink of profound change, it is clear that there are two versions of our future that could be negotiated.

The first is a future that tears us apart from our EU partners.

Standing outside and shut off from the European market of 500 million people who could buy our products and services.

Reverting to World Trade Organisation rules, which as the CBI have said “would do serious and lasting damage to the UK economy and those of our trading partners”.

A global race to the bottom which would not only put our economy and jobs at risk, but which would also abandon our shared scientific, educational and cultural endeavours with the EU.

So-called ‘Hard’ Brexit.

The second version of our future is a version where we exit the EU but build a new and strong relationship with our EU partners based on the principles of co-operation, collaboration and mutual benefit.

A future which preserves our ability to trade in goods and services with our biggest market of 500 million people.

A future that values joint scientific, educational and cultural work with our EU partners, and maintains our status as a global scientific superpower.

A future that guarantees our continued co-operation in the fight against organised crime and terrorism.

A future which allows the UK to retain its leading position in the world, influencing and contributing to developments across Europe and beyond.

The battle between these two versions of our future is the battle of our times.

It will be fought out over the next few years.

Labour needs to be leading that battle.

As the opposition, we need to be fighting the battle for the future of Britain.

If we do not, the chance to shape the future of our country will be lost.

Future generations will not forgive us for such a dereliction of duty.

But accepting and respecting the referendum result is not the end of the process; it is the beginning.

The referendum answered the question of what we should do, but provided no answer to how we should do so.

That question was not on the ballot paper on 23rd June.

It was not in the Conservative Party manifesto.

And it was not addressed by Theresa May before she became Prime Minister.

But it is the now the most pressing question Britain has faced for generations.

So what does fighting for the right version of our future entail?

Let me start with trade.

A good deal of ink has been spilt in the last few months on the finer distinctions of the single market and the customs union.

I’m not sure how much clarity that has provided.

So let me attempt to put Labour’s position succinctly by focussing on function not form.

Put simply, Labour will push for a Brexit model which maintains and protects our ability successfully to trade goods and deliver services with and to the EU.

That means:

  • A model that ensures continued tariff-free trade for UK businesses with the EU
  • A model that ensures that any new regulatory frameworks do not add bureaucratic burdens or risk harmful divergence from the EU market.
  • A model that protects the competitiveness of our services and manufacturing sectors; and
  • A model that ensures that existing protections at work provided by the EU are maintained.

These tests complement the aims set out by John McDonnell earlier this year and set a blueprint against which the government’s endeavours can be measured.

Significantly, the Government has provided far less clarity about its approach.

It has veered between a hard, extreme Brexit and some other undefined, vaguer form of Brexit.

The Prime Minister’s conference speech outlined the former: a UK out of any EU rules based systems altogether.

Necessarily isolated and detached.

When I visited Brussels shortly afterwards, it was clear this had been received by our EU colleagues as the Prime Minister wanting to take the UK out of the single market, out of the customs union and adopting the stance of a remote third party to the EU.

Hence the description, “Hard Brexit”.

Contrast that with the tone struck by the Business Secretary Greg Clark when he announced Nissan’s welcome investment in Sunderland.

We were told that the Government had given private assurances to Nissan that the UK would seek to achieve “continued access” to the single market “without tariffs and without bureaucratic impediments”.

Amid those two very different visions of Brexit we have had a range of contradictory messages from Cabinet Members, as well as leaks, hints and Boris Johnson’s never ending running commentary.

Given the complexity of the issues before us and the deliberate lack of planning by the Cameron government, it is perhaps not surprising that we have this level of chaos and confusion.

But it needs to end now.

That is why Labour’s victory last week in securing a commitment from the government to publish a plan before invoking Article 50 was so important.

During the debate last week, I set out five tests for the plan to satisfy:

Does it end uncertainty surrounding the Government’s position on fundamental issues such the access to the single market, the customs union and transitional arrangements?

Does it include sufficient detail to allow the Brexit select committee and other relevant Parliamentary bodies to carry out their scrutiny functions effectively?

Does it enable the Office of Budget Responsibility to do its job properly in assessing the economic impact of Brexit?

Does it include sufficient detail to allow the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to be assured that their particular and specific concerns are being addressed?

Will it help build a national consensus on Brexit?

A late vague plan will not do.

And I have put the government on notice that if no meaningful plan emerges, Labour will seek to amend any Article 50 Bill brought forward early next year.

Anyone who thinks that the government has been handed a blank cheque is very much mistaken.

Let me now turn to freedom of movement.

If Labour has the ambition to bring the 52 per cent and the 48 per cent together and to build a national consensus on Brexit, we have to recognise that changes to the way freedom of movement rules operate in the UK have to be part of the Brexit negotiations.

When I was Shadow Immigration Minister I spent months visiting every region of the UK to listen to views on immigration.

I know how important the issue is to many voters.

I know that any party that seeks to govern needs to listen to their concerns and come up with adequate and appropriate responses.

No comprehensive approach to Brexit or response to the referendum result can ignore the issue of freedom of movement.

As Len McCluskey recently said:

“There is no doubt that concerns about the impact of the free movement played a significant part in the referendum result, particularly in working-class communities…We are well past the point where [this] issue can be ignored”.

Labour needs a bold and ambitious response.

The rules must change.

And our new relationship with the EU will have to be one which is based on fair migration rules and the reasonable management of migration.

If Brexit forces us to confront the appalling and enduring skills gap in the UK, that is a good thing.

If Brexit forces us to confront low pay exploitation, that is also a good thing.

But the status quo is not an option.

Labour’s response must, of course, be driven by our values.

As President Obama recently said, the rapidly changing nature of:

“….politics in all of our countries is going to require us to manage technology and global integration…in a way that makes people feel more control, that gives them more confidence in their future, but does not resort to simplistic answers or divisions of race or tribe, or crude nationalism”.

The Labour Party and the wider Labour movement have always been at the forefront of fighting discrimination and building a fairer, more equal society.

Labour recognises that without the hard work and skill of migrants our public services, our businesses and our economy would suffer.

But we have also always been the party that values strong, cohesive communities.

It was striking that the referendum results showed the areas in the country with the highest levels of immigration voted most strongly to Remain.

But the areas with the highest pace of change voted most strongly to Leave.

That tells me that the British people are open and tolerant; but that they also expect change to be managed, rather than simply allowing the free market to rip through communities.

This is not to pretend that arguing for changes to freedom of movement will not make a deal on single market access harder.

It will.

But in the negotiations to come, it is incumbent on the government to fight for the fullest possible market access and reasonable management of migration.

We should demand nothing less.

But our new relationship with the EU has to go beyond an economic argument and protecting our ability to trade in goods and services – vital though they are.

Underpinning everything we have done with our European partners since the war have been shared values – British values.

Of peace.

Of co-operation.

Of collaboration.

The rule of law.

Human rights.

Shared security and safety.

As we forge a new future outside the EU, it is vital that we re-assert these values and use them to guide us through the turbulent times ahead.

Labour must argue for a bold, progressive domestic policy post-Brexit.

It is true – as many of us argued during the referendum campaign – that EU legislation has been a driver of progressive UK policy in areas such the environment, consumer rights and employment rights.

Protecting these gains is essential.

Particularly since some Conservative MPs have already signalled an intention to use the Great Repeal Bill as an opportunity to water down or erode these vital rights and standards.

But defending the status quo should never be the summit of Labour’s ambitions.

Enshrining rights in our law is important, but we should also pursue more progressive, more ambitious policies than those enshrined in EU law.

Not to match EU standards but to use Labour values to go beyond them.

And, in doing so, to seek to address some of the underlying causes of the division in our society.

So to conclude.

Many of the certainties and policy assumptions we have made for more than four decades are now up for grabs.

That is why the role of the opposition is so important right here; right now.

The future of Britain is being decided and Labour will be at the centre of it.

Respecting the result.

Fighting for a confident and outward looking country and a co-operative, collaborative and values-led version of our future.

Bringing a fractured country back together.

Responding to Brexit in the national interest.

That is Labour’s task.


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