Labour’s response to the so-called ‘deal’ – what’s the fuss about?

Peter Kenyon wonders why Keir Starmer is picking another fight with his party

Labour leader Keir Starmer has sought to pre-empt Labour’s response to the EU/UK trade agreement without waiting for it to be published, in the name of demonstrating his leadership. The reason why is currently a bit puzzling. The Tories have blocked any parliamentary scrutiny of their EU deal, and instead are just tabling enabling legislation for the vote on 30th December.

For the Parliamentary Labour Party there is a simple binary choice: deal or no deal? Though most public debate has been about the deal itself, and a ‘rebellion’ in Labour ranks, the deal – and I repeat – is not subject to a parliamentary vote. The reported revolt presumes the deal will be voted on.

To my mind this is making Starmer look increasingly opaque and anti-democratic as a political strategist. Is his posturing over the content of the deal a smokescreen intended to smother coherent debate about our future relationship with the EU? He has already decreed Labour will not be going into the 2024 general election committed to rejoining the EU. Or is he so insecure he has to subject Labour Party members and fellow MPs to another loyalty test? Or both?

Starmer’s strategy pivots on his belief about the readiness of the electorate – especially in so-called ‘Red Wall’ seats (supposedly safe Labour seats in the Westminster Parliament) – to accept Tory propaganda that they have ‘got Brexit done’, enabling the country to ‘move on’.

He can’t be serious. By all accounts Brexit is far from done. My reading is that if the UK diverges from this treaty, the EU can tear it up.

Labour’s policy should be focussed on our future relationship with the EU and its role in enabling a return to full employment, with people enjoying a real living wage and the prospect of an affordable roof over their heads for themselves and their families. The prospects for those ambitions have taken an enormous hit since the EU referendum in June 2016. Johnson talks breezily about the freedom to level up inequalities in the UK now that Brexit is done, whilst being propped up in power by people who take perverse pleasure in avoiding paying their taxes.

The Covid-19 pandemic is providing temporary cover from these harsh realities. But it should not shield the Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition from questions about his anti-democratic efforts to promote his so-called ‘leadership’ qualities. Worse, there appears to be an unspoken acceptance on Starmer’s part regarding the eventual demise of the United Kingdom. Check the electoral arithmetic determining winners and losers in the Westminster Parliament. What Johnson achieved in December last year was a clear demonstration of the Conservatives’ ability to win power by taking English seats from Labour. Forget Northern Irish political allies, the Scots and the Welsh – under First Past The Post, Johnson showed the Conservatives could take power and possibly retain it by focussing on England. The casual sacrifice of Northern Ireland by Johnson in January 2020 should have had constitutional alarm bells ringing far more loudly.

As matters stand, when Northern Ireland votes to reunite with the 26 counties aka the Republic of Ireland, it doesn’t even have to apply for EU membership – just a case of tidying up legal loose ends. Just in case we have forgotten, the Republic is already a full member of the European Union. The predicament of the Scots and the Welsh in the interregnum is more difficult to divine. But any more Conservative Government initiatives to emphasise British sovereignty can only increase the risk of the EU reverting to a ‘no deal’ scenario. In those circumstances, should we doubt that creative minds on both sides of La Manche (aka the English Channel) will be working overtime about how to offer the remaining Celts a means of escape from conservative England?

This is the background against which Labour should be framing its reaction to the Johnson ‘deal’. The idea that the country can move on now, thanks to the Partnership agreement, is naive in the extreme. A read of the full text reveals that virtually everything is open to further negotiation, creating continuing uncertainties for business and jobs and adversely affecting investment. Those certainties started evaporating on 24th June 2016. There is nothing in the agreement concerning the financial services sector, which currently accounts for some 80% of the UK economy. Nothing in the deal replaces the uncertainties of trading goods. The Tories have secured their tax-dodging freedoms from Brussels. The EU has protected the operations of its Single Market.

Highlighting those shortcomings are what Labour should be about, not uttering platitudes of support to a Tory project aimed at dodging civic responsibilities and covering up a multitude of lies.

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