Pitching to the centre, Starmer must not forget the other voters he needs to win

Katie Neame
© UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor
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“It’s realistic.” That was Emily Thornberry’s assessment of Keir Starmer’s announcement yesterday that a Labour government would not seek to rejoin the single market. Speaking to Sky News this morning, the Shadow Attorney General described leaving the EU as a “one-way street”, stressing that the UK would be unable to rejoin on the same terms. She told viewers that she is a “pragmatic politician”, adding: “In 2019, we were defeated. We had to leave. And so now that we’ve left, we have to look after our country and make sure that the right decisions are being made.”

The Labour leader told attendees at the Centre for European Reform think tank event that his party would not seek to rejoin the EU, the single market or a customs union. He argued: “Nothing about revisiting those rows will help stimulate growth or bring down food prices or help British business thrive in the modern world.” Starmer also confirmed that Labour would not restore freedom of movement – despite having vowed during the Labour leadership contest that he would look to bring it back after Brexit. He instead set out five steps to “make Brexit work”, including a new veterinary agreement for trade in agri-products between the UK and EU, a scheme to allow low-risk goods to enter Northern Ireland without unnecessary checks and a new security pact with the EU.

Some have suggested that the statement was partly intended to quell pro-EU voices within the Labour party. But the primary focus must surely have been reaching out to Leave-voting seats, especially those in the ‘Red Wall’, assuring them that Brexit would not be reversed or watered down under a future Labour government.

It’s not a sudden U-turn for the Labour leader. In January 2021, following the hard Brexit deal struck by Lord Frost, Starmer said: “I don’t think that there’s scope for major renegotiation. We’ve just had four years of negotiation. We’ve arrived at a treaty, and now we’ve got to make that treaty work.” But it is also a far from uncontroversial move, with the SNP accusing Starmer of “embracing the Tories’ hard Brexit”.

In his speech, Starmer stressed that his party was “staking out the centre ground”. But he needs to be careful not to forget the complex coalition of supporters required for Labour to overturn the Conservative majority, including Remain-voting Scotland. Particularly given the fact that, just hours before Starmer’s speech, Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar declared: “Only Labour will unite our country.”

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