Labour's incoherent Brexit plans are a dangerous distraction

If Labour gets in at the next election, Scotland can look forward to a tortuous and ineffectual attempt by the Westminster government to “make Brexit work”. Any improvements will be tiny and take years because there is no fundamental reset available inside Keir Starmer’s ‘red lines’. 

By ruling out single market membership and a customs union with the EU, or even a Swiss-style bespoke deal, Starmer has painted himself into a corner. Instead of fixing the increasing damage Brexit is causing to Scotland and the UK,  Labour can promise only a few tiny changes – but prominent experts accuse them of “wishful thinking” for ignoring how complex and slow a piecemeal approach will be. 

The FT’s policy editor Peter Foster concluded that under the Labour plans, the UK will still find itself at a disadvantage when trading with Europe. The plan is “dangerous if it becomes a distraction from confronting the actual challenges of making the UK an attractive investment proposition outside the EU single market.” 

Bronwen Maddox, Chief Exec of the Chatham House think tank accused Starmer of “wishful thinking” in believing Europe is keen to engage in lengthy talks about trivial changes to the existing deal. “British politicians again and again fail to understand the passion that founding members of the EU attach to the indivisibility of the single market. “Cherry picking”, that European pejorative for British negotiating tactics, is a cute-sounding cliché that conceals real anger.”

William Keegan writing in the Observer scornfully dismissed Starmer's claim that: “Just because we are outside the EU, it doesn’t stop us leading in Europe.” He added: “The fact of the matter is that the damage of up to between 5% and 6% a year of our gross domestic product resulting from Brexit is going to limit any scope a new Labour government would have to repair the damage caused to public sector services by the austerity imposed by the Conservatives.”

Westminster’s Punch and Judy show will slug it out over every tiny rule change

Analysts warn that even Keir Starmer’s small and inconsequential aspirations for improvement will likely get bogged down in negotiations in Brussels while attracting domestic political flak from Conservatives, who will angrily accuse him of “betraying Brexit” and turning the UK into a rule taker from Brussels.

Of course, it is inevitable that any attempt to smooth trade by accepting European regulations while outside the bloc will be “rule taking, not rule making”. Brexit means the UK no longer has a seat at the top table. But that won’t stop the sloganising. Scottish businesses and families will have to sit and wait for vital help while Westminster’s Punch and Judy show slugs out every tiny suggested alteration.

For example, on a recent trip to Montreal, Starmer said that he did not really want to diverge very much from new EU regulations. His remarks were seized on by Conservative pro-Brexiters, made headlines and led news bulletins. Levelling-Up Secretary Michael Gove said Starmer wanted to “return us to the EU effectively and he wants to rerun the Brexit agonies of the past”. Chancellor Jeremy Hunt said Starmer’s comments would likely “worry a lot of people” that “what he really wants to do is unpick Brexit”. Apparently those types of attacks are vote winners in England.

That’s an example of what lies ahead for Scotland under a Labour government – a constant political game of grandmother’s footsteps while the economy shrinks. 

In contrast, an independent Scotland would be on a direct route to rejoining the EU and regaining access to the full range of opportunities and trading relationships that that would bring. 

Starmer’s painful piecemeal approach

Labour plans amount to little more than tinkering – the main offer is a promise to obtain “mutual recognition of professional qualifications”. Canada took nine rounds of negotiations and over a year to get a single side-agreement on architects. 

In another example of the painful piecemeal approach, it has just taken more than three years to get the UK back into the world’s biggest science fund Horizon – in a worse position than before. This is especially painful for Scotland as we punched above our weight and attracted more funding than the UK contributed - but that isn't possible under the new deal. 

Labour’s plan is incoherent

Keir Starmer has boxed himself in with an incoherent plan designed to appeal to the Brexit-voting red wall seats of Northern England. He has said that the next Labour government won’t rejoin the European Customs Union or the single market and they won’t dynamically align with upgraded European regulations.

The collapse in UK economic performance relative to the EU is already increasingly obvious. Sterling is expected to hit 90p to 1 Euro in the next three months – in 2016, before the Brexit vote, 75 pence would buy you one Euro. The UK’s balance of payments is increasingly falling behind European competitors thanks to the fact Brexit has introduced export controls but import controls have been repeatedly postponed. Sticking with Brexit and its suffocating effect on the UK economy will limit a Labour government's potential in other areas.

An independent Scotland would immediately be on the path to rejoining the EU, regaining the right to work, study and live in 27 countries, regaining access to the seasonal workers so vital to Scotland’s food, farming and hospitality sectors and rebuilding the trading relationships that the Westminster-enforced Brexit has damaged.