Calls for Britain to rejoin the European Union are ill-timed and counter-productive, says Peter Kenyon. PR and a UK-wide Northern Ireland arrangement could start the process. Will Starmer get it?
“Les Anglais sont fous.” So said our French host the morning the EU referendum result was announced on 24th June 2016. I was reminded of this enduring truth during a recent Zoom call organised by Another Europe is Possible. Too many contributors thought rejoining the EU was how to win the next general election. Madness persists seven years on if we think the time is right to call for the Brexit vote to be reversed. A more nuanced approach is required. Yes, the UK economy is suffering. Yes, we are all being denied the opportunity to live and work in the other member states. Yes, our younger comrades are being denied educational opportunities through the Erasmus scheme. Yes, UK universities are being cut out of vital EU research programmes.
But we forget, the EU – contrary to popular opinion – is the most democratic set of intergovernmental institutions in the world. In the last seven years, while the Tories have governed alone, the UK’s reputation as a global power has been trashed and our democratic credentials have been seriously eroded. Why does this matter? Well, a UK application to rejoin the EU could be rejected out of hand in the absence of effective democratic checks and balances. It could fall at the first hurdle. Does anyone this side of the Channel seriously think that Brussels would want a re-run of the last seven years if the next British government was defeated by the Tories in 2029/30 under our first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral rules? While the significance of this sinks in, let’s pause for reflection on this erosion of our democracy. The Tory coups of 2015, 2016 and 2019 veil two issues: the role of corporate and foreign money, in particular Putin’s roubles, in our democracy, and the weaknesses of the Electoral Commission in both regulating political party funding (which dates back to the second Blair government of 2001-05) and, more recently, enabling people to vote. Now is the time to demand full publication, so appropriate safeguards can be introduced when Labour is in government.
Labour Party leader Keir Starmer has not excelled when it comes to promoting democratic socialism: his vendetta against certain types of Jew and the Corbynistas – especially Jeremy himself – do not inspire confidence. Starmer’s decision to ban Jamie Driscoll, the Labour Mayor of North Tyne, from standing for re-election has been condemned by most of Labour’s affiliated trade unions as a “monumental own goal”. Every democratic socialist hopes for a Labour victory at the next British general election.
A Tory-free future ought to be a key goal for everyone on the centre-left, as I wrote in January. That can only begin to be achieved by reform of our electoral system for the UK. Again, on this subject, Starmer’s political judgment is suspect – his exclusion of this critical issue from the Brown Commission remit left PR supporters gasping. Did this affect Labour’s showing in local government elections earlier this year? Well, maybe, yes. Despite the dismal performance of the Tories, who lost over 1,000 local councillors, Labour’s gains were not, according to some psephologists, as striking as the Liberal Democrats’ or the Greens’. Professor John Curtice was reported in the Daily Telegraph as having “poured cold water on Labour’s claims the party is on track to win a majority at the next general election based on its local election performance”, pointing out that the results left Labour most likely to be “the largest party in the next Parliament”, but that an outright majority was “still uncertain”. Inevitably, Starmer claimed Labour was on course for a majority. But he has form projecting election outcomes on unrepresentative data.
Following former British prime minister Boris Johnson’s resignation for lying to Parliament, there will be more by-elections to add to his speculative appetite. Starmer would be better advised to start thinking more seriously about how to enable Labour to address the ills of the country. On present showing, the second to worst outcome of the next general election, albeit a possibility, would be a Labour landslide; worse would be a Tory victory. A hung parliament would be better to concentrate the Labour leadership’s mind. What are the steps most urgently needed to help redress the extensive damage to the public realm done by the Conservatives? Critical is borrowing to invest. Labour’s economic team is already getting cold feet about the party’s green investment commitments. A £28 billion-a-year plan has been watered down. The party’s shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme in early June that the figure would instead be a “target”.
This begs the question, does Labour really understand the difference between borrowing to support current expenditure (or tax cuts, as tried by short-lived Tory prime minister Liz Truss) and borrowing to invest? Another former Labour chancellor, Gordon Brown, made a similar mistake in government between 1997 and 1999 when he just stuck rigidly to Tory spending plans. The Labour movement needs to wise up about this fundamental issue asap.
Political timidity at the heart of Labour’s leadership has been induced by the speed with which the markets turned on Trussonomics last autumn, forcing hundreds of thousands of homeowners to pay more for their mortgages. Truss’s mistake was failing to understand what she was doing. Her proposed borrowing was not ‘factored-in’ by financial markets into the pricing of government bonds. Labour, on the other hand, was clear about the need for green investment – that is, until Reeves got the jitters. We could add in other borrowing requirements, such as housing, especially council-owned accommodation at affordable rents.
It is vital that Starmer and his shadow team understand that borrowing to invest is good, and that they are completely transparent with the City about their plans, so that they can be ‘priced-in’. That way, the necessary programmes to tackle climate change and homelessness can proceed as fast as possible. With those plans will come some economic revival. But there remain the onerous burdens of Brexit. Starmer’s current posture is to claim that Labour will deliver ‘a better Brexit’. Writing in the right-wing, Brexit-supporting Daily Express newspaper at the end of May, Starmer pledged that he would head up a government “with the vision and the focus” to “make Brexit work”. This was, as one might expect, condemned as delusional by pro-Europeans. They warned this stance will lose Labour votes at the next election. With Johnson branded a ‘liar’ by the Tory-controlled House of Commons Privileges Committee, Starmer has a priceless opportunity to edge toward a more sane position on the EU from both a political and economic standpoint.
Here I return to my opening points about the state of British democracy. Those deficiencies offer Starmer an opportunity to be candid with the electorate and be credited for it. His Damascene moment requires regret for the lies told by Johnson and his acolytes and the damage done, backed up with a pledge to remedy the worst effects by applying to secure the same EU status for the whole of the UK as that currently enjoyed (sic) by Northern Ireland as soon as possible. He needs to be quick. Tory prime minister Rishi Sunak has already recognised what a good deal NI has now got. With a ‘mea culpa‘ moment conceded, Starmer could demonstrate his superior political prowess by bundling in a commitment to democratic reform that includes PR for general elections that could pave the way for eventual full membership sometime in the 2030s. Why so long? Well, if the 27-member states would not take kindly to the idea of an application while the UK continues to operate FPTP, then Westminster cannot possibly be elected under PR until, say, 2029/30 at the earliest. This is not because the 27 would want to dictate how Britain elects its MPs. It’s the threat of a Brexiteer-Tory revival that worries our neighbours (as much as it worries us democratic socialists). So, it is not unreasonable to suggest that a ‘bedding-in’ period would be required. That means no credible full EU membership re-application could be submitted until the mid 2030s, as many as three or four general elections hence.