AAfter whipping his MPs into backing Boris Johnson’s bad deal and then taking a vow of silence as a repentant Remainer, Labor leader Sir Keir Starmer has explained how he would make Brexit ‘work’. It’s good news. No amount of flags can to hide the damage inflicted on the economy by Brexit, or the parliamentary inability to control ministerial decisions power grabs. On Monday, Sir Keir and Scottish Party leader Anas Sarwar gave major speeches outlining how Labor would deal with the constitutional and economic challenges posed by Brexit.
Sir Keir’s plan dealt with the acute problems facing the country. He was right to say that Labour’s priority was to settle the Northern Ireland Protocol with an agri-food deal to remove most controls on trade. We must thank the Labor leader for having said that the mutual recognition of professional qualifications must be negotiated; that Britain should be on EU science agendas; and that visa-free travel for musicians must be reinstated. The EU would be more conciliatory with a government it can trust. Sir Keir’s plans represent a pragmatic policy rather than the more revolutionary one sought by some pro-Europeans.
Polls suggest four out of 10 The British are in favor of reintegration into the EU. But Sir Keir does not want to restart the referendum wars. Joining the single market means gaining access to the market but also accepting the free movement of workers. Back in the EU Customs Union would force the UK to abandon its independent trade policy. These policies can be attractive in economic terms. A softer Brexit would help the UK. But such a policy would allow the Conservatives to portray Sir Keir as a rejoin. This risks being an election-losing strategy, as winning constituencies held by Tories who voted for Brexit is a sine qua non for a Labor government. Sir Keir’s position is shrewd in that it proposes to respond to Remainers’ arguments without offending the Leavers.
Mr Sarwar’s call to replace the existing House of Lords with a Senate of Nations and Regions is the most sweeping political announcement made on Monday. He wants to disperse the power of Westminster and abolish Britain’s anachronistic and unelected upper house. It is a laudable position. The irony is that with the Commons crippled by Tory infighting, it was the Lords who exposed the government’s hoarding of EU powers for use by politicians in Cardiff, Edinburgh and Belfast. Two acts – relating to the United Kingdom internal market and the country grant regime – weakened the devolution settlement, keeping powers in Westminster that should have been used in other capitals to adapt policies to local needs. Another public procurement bill is in progress boycotted by the Scottish Government.
Peers can debate such issues, but as unelected politicians they are bound by the Salisbury Convention to oppose the government on its manifest commitments. Mr Sarwar’s plans for an upper house of elected politicians resemble those proposed by Ed Miliband in 2014. Mr Miliband wanted an upper house populated by lawmakers in roughly proportional numbers from Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and parts of England. A smaller chamber would be an improvement – the UK has the second largest decision-making body in the world after the Chinese National People’s Congress – as well as a more democratic body given that unelected peers have such influence over British politics. Brexit produced little advantages. A more democratic Britain would be one.