There are few governments as bad at negotiating a deal as the current Conservative administration. Millions of pounds on dodgy Covid-19 testing kits and faulty personal protective equipment or ferries that did not exist, to name a few. I guess it hurts Boris Johnson a lot less when it is not his own money that he is throwing away, but ours – the taxpayer. The never-ending Brexit negotiations are yet another sign that this government could not negotiate its way out of a paper bag. Even in opposition, I genuinely wish they were doing better because people’s livelihoods and the future of entire industries depend on a decent deal with the European Union.
In Luton, our aviation industry has taken a huge hit during the pandemic and we cannot afford a blow to our manufacturing base as well. If we walk away with no deal agreed with the EU, trading on World Trade Organisation terms, and the subsequent tariffs on vehicles like our Luton-made Vauxhall vans, will be devastating. The potential 10% tariffs on cars and 22% for vans would make vehicle manufacturing in the UK untenable for most companies. Although it has shrunk significantly in recent years, there is still a proud and strong association with manufacturing in our town. Vauxhall came to Luton in 1905 and in its heyday hired nearly 40,000 at any one time. We are a far cry from that number but there are still around 10,000 manufacturing jobs in Luton today and we need to keep every single one of them.
This risk is not just to Luton. UK businesses that trade with the EU are saying the same thing loud and clear: times are tough, they need certainty and a deal with the EU. This is also the same message that I hear from workers as well as their unions. It is rare to hear workers, unions and bosses all in harmony but the government should hear those calls. They are the same calls we have seen from the heads of the TUC and Confederation of British Industry, working together to make Johnson and Michael Gove put our country before the whims of Mark Francois, Jacob Rees-Mogg and the like.
As well as the thousands of jobs in manufacturing, there also thousands of Irish Lutonians – including my baby addition to the Luton Irish family! The importance of maintaining the Good Friday Agreement cannot be understated. This is not just about the economy – this is also about peace. The border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland will be the sole land border between the EU and UK. Any attempt to reintroduce a hard border between the two will risk not only the free flow of goods but also long hoped-for peace.
Johnson’s threat to the Good Friday Agreement also threatens future trade agreements with the US and UK. As well as the President-elect Joe Biden, Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi was absolutely clear just how important the protection of the agreement is when she said: “If the UK violates that international treaty and Brexit undermines the Good Friday accord, there will be absolutely no chance of a US-UK trade agreement passing the Congress.” The US is currently the single country we trade most with, but if you combine it with the EU both markets are worth around 60% (the EU 47% and the US 13%) of total UK imports and exports.
People can point to the recent trade deal with Japan as a good thing, and it is. But we will need more of these, many times over, to get anywhere close to replacing the combined worth of US and EU trade with our country. Given that only 4% of Opel/Vauxhall’s global sales were outside of the EU, the Japan deal is currently a drop in the ocean for plants like mine in the constituency. Yet again, this government finds itself on the back foot when it comes to another important set of trade negotiations with our most significant trading partners.
Like the country, the majority of Luton voted to leave the EU. People had a number of different reasons for which they voted Leave and they are valid. That argument is settled, and the question now is how we leave to ensure as bright a Brexit as possible for towns like Luton. This means the very real prospect of supporting a negotiated Brexit deal, because the way things are looking, even a bad Tory deal is better than no deal. Labour’s work cannot stop there. The issues facing many of our towns still need to be addressed, Britain’s role in the world outside the EU still needs to be defined, and there is no sign that this government is up to the task.