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Starmer has taken Labour members with him on Europe

  • Politics

Three years since Britain left the European Union, and even David Davis is having regrets. The former Brexit Secretary believes the government’s Retained EU Law bill, championed by Jacob Rees-Mogg,is “not democratic… inefficient and possibly incompetent.” Davis is far from alone in expressing concern at the bill, which would remove all remaining EU laws in the UK by the end of 2023. Lawyers and campaigners have reacted angrily at the risks posed to maternity rights, consumer protections, environmental standards and more.

Concerns at the bill follow growing evidence of the economic damage wrought by Britain’s departure from the EU. Brexit has contributed to higher food prices, lower export levels and sluggish productivity growth. What’s more, voters are increasingly unimpressed by post-Brexit Britain: support for British membership of the EU now standsat 57%.

Surprising, then, to note the level of quiescence among Labour members over Europe.

From 2018-2019 the party was convulsedby bitter, voluble disagreement over Europe, from constituency parties to the House of Lords. Today, Labour’s leader Keir Starmer has been far more plain in rejecting the possibility of rejoining the EU than Jeremy Corbyn ever was. And even Labour Movement for Europe (LME), the party’s pro-European affiliate (of which I’m a member) is not making the case for “Rejoin”.

Labour members, in common with the rest of the UK, have learned from the country’s experience of negotiating a post-Brexit trade deal with the EU. The negotiations revealed the strength and unity of the EU in defending its interests: a factor almost entirely overlooked during the referendum campaign itself.

It will take years of sustained diplomacy and political engagement for Europe’s leaders to trust Britain as a potential member. During that time, the EU will continue to evolve. Membership of the EU may look very different in 2025, let alone 2030 or 2040. And as Stella Creasy, Chair of LME, put it in her recent address to the Jewish Labour Movement (JLM), the experience of the 2016 referendum should warn against pitting the status quo against ahypothetical, ill-defined alternative.

But even if rejoining were technically possible in the short term, it seems doubtful that Labour members would be digging out their blue-and-yellow berets. After four election defeats, and the crushing Conservative landslide of 2019, members have embraced the discipline necessary to secure a Labour majority. That has meant dropping positions which might make achieving that goal more difficult. Even if some members bristled the first few times Starmer or senior shadow cabinet members ruled out a return to the EU, it is now a position party members endorse.

It is a remarkable turnaround for which Starmer takes a great deal of credit. Where he led, members have followed. One of the most notable aspects of Creasy’s address on Europe to the JLM was the comparatively low turnout compared to other sessions held throughout the day: an indication that the issue is now largely settled, in the minds of party members at least.

Labour is not, as some commentators allege, staying silent on Britain’s relationship with Europe. In a recent interview, Starmer directly addressed the limitations of the Conservatives’ deal with the EU and highlighted what a Labour government would do differently (whilst re-iterating the core message of the “political impossibility” of rejoining the single market). Labour has sought to seek a resolution to the crisis over the Northern Ireland protocol, offering its support to the government to pass a deal in Parliament. At the same time, opposition in the House of Commons to the Retained EU Law bill has been led by Labour MPs including Creasy and Hilary Benn.

In what is likely to be the last full calendar before the next general election, there will doubtless be significant policy disagreements within Labour. Arguments over spending commitments, the health service, electoral reform, wealth taxes and more are brewing. LME will want to lead discussions on what, precisely, a “closer relationship” with Europe under Labour should entail. But Britain’s membership of the EU, the issue which so divided the party in recent years, will not be contested. Starmer has successfully orientated Labour away from a position that could hamper its chances with the voters it needs to win to form a majority – and he has taken party members with him.

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