Shadow cabinet fact-finding missions across the pond

Recess has allowed a few key figures the chance to attend the US conventions.

One of the very few consolations of political opposition is the time it affords to think. The pace of government often precludes development of new ideas and dispassionate pondering of the situation. The point at which ministers tend to get a new perspective on things usually coincides with the moment they are sacked. Hence the quaint convention of the "summer reading list" - the titles that it is recommended MPs read by the pool in their precious few weeks of leisure: a new biography of an eminent Victorian; a book by an American neuroscientist promising a revolution in economics and society encapsulated in a single abstract noun (e.g. Banality: Why Saying Nothing is the New Everything); the much-praised diaries of a witty but ultimately unsuccessful politician, recently retired or deceased.

But the real hardcore do not satisfy themselves with reading books about politics and economics on their summer holidays. Oh no. The truly dedicated take the opportunity, when things get quiet at Westminster, to immerse themselves in other countries' politics. Lord Steward Wood, one of Ed Miliband's closest advisors and a highly influential figure in the shadow cabinet, is currently at the Republican Party National Convention in Tampa, Florida. He is also going to the Democratic Party gathering next week in Charlotte, North Carolina. Also at that jamboree will be Douglas Alexander, shadow foreign secretary.

America has always had a unique hold on the imaginations of British politicians and the current generation at the top of the Labour party have all passed through US colleges. Ed Miliband took a sabbatical from his time in Gordon Brown's treasury to teach at Harvard. Ed Balls was a Kennedy Scholar at Harvard after graduating from Oxford. Douglas Alexander studied for a year at the University of Pennsylvania - and worked on Michael Dukakis's failed bid for the White House.

It isn't yet clear what Labour's top brass hope to learn from sitting in the stands in the opening rounds of this year's presidential election. There isn't any doubt about which side Miliband will be rooting for. (The same cannot be said for David Cameron - as I noted here.)

The tone and structure of American political debate seems ever more removed from the kind of discourse that works in Westminster. The macroeconomic dividing lines about debt, deficit and stimulus are not dissimilar; the deep lagoons of culture war venom are wholly alien. But then the main reason top British opposition politicians go to visit US political conventions is pretty simple: because it is great theatre, because it is fascinating and because - unburdened by government jobs - they can.

Ed Miliband meeting Barack Obama in 2011. Photograph: Getty Images

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Labour’s best general election bet is Keir Starmer

The shadow secretary for Brexit has the heart of a Remainer - but head of a pragmatic politician in Brexit Britain. 

In a different election, the shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer might have been written off as too quiet a man. Instead - as he set out his plans to scrap the Brexit white paper and offer EU citizens reassurance on “Day One” in the grand hall of the Institute of Civil Engineers - the audience burst into spontaneous applause. 

For voters now torn between their loyalty to Labour and Remain, Starmer is a reassuring figure. Although he says he respects the Brexit vote, the former director of public prosecutions is instinctively in favour of collaborating with Europe. He even wedges phrases like “regulatory alignment” into his speeches. When a journalist asked about the practicality of giving EU citizens right to remain before UK citizens abroad have received similar promises, he retorted: “The way you just described it is to use people as bargaining chips… We would not do that.”

He is also clear about the need for Parliament to vote on a Brexit deal in the autumn of 2018, for a transitional agreement to replace the cliff edge, and for membership of the single market and customs union to be back on the table. When pressed on the option of a second referendum, he said: “The whole point of trying to involve Parliament in the process is that when we get to the final vote, Parliament has had its say.” His main argument against a second referendum idea is that it doesn’t compare like with like, if a transitional deal is already in place. For Remainers, that doesn't sound like a blanket veto of #EUref2. 

Could Leave voters in the provinces warm to the London MP for Holborn and St Pancras? The answer seems to be no – The Daily Express, voice of the blue passport brigade, branded his speech “a plot”. But Starmer is at least respectful of the Brexit vote, as it stands. His speech was introduced by Jenny Chapman, MP for Darlington, who berated Westminster for their attitude to Leave voters, and declared: “I would not be standing here if the Labour Party were in anyway attempting to block Brexit.” Yes, Labour supporters who voted Leave may prefer a Brexiteer like Kate Hoey to Starmer,  but he's in the shadow Cabinet and she's on a boat with Nigel Farage. 

Then there’s the fact Starmer has done his homework. His argument is coherent. His speech was peppered with references to “businesses I spoke to”. He has travelled around the country. He accepts that Brexit means changing freedom of movement rules. Unlike Clive Lewis, often talked about as another leadership contender, he did not resign but voted for the Article 50 Bill. He is one of the rare shadow cabinet members before June 2016 who rejoined the front bench. This also matters as far as Labour members are concerned – a March poll found they disapproved of the way Labour has handled Brexit, but remain loyal to Jeremy Corbyn. 

Finally, for those voters who, like Brenda, reacted to news of a general election by complaining "Not ANOTHER one", Starmer has some of the same appeal as Theresa May - he seems competent and grown-up. While EU regulation may be intensely fascinating to Brexiteers and Brussels correspondents, I suspect that by 2019 most of the British public's overwhelming reaction to Brexit will be boredom. Starmer's willingness to step up to the job matters. 

Starmer may not have the grassroots touch of the Labour leader, nor the charisma of backbench dissidents like Chuka Umunna, but the party should make him the de facto face of the campaign.  In the hysterics of a Brexit election, a quiet man may be just what Labour needs.

What did Keir Starmer say? The key points of his speech

  • An immediate guarantee that all EU nationals currently living in the UK will see no change in their legal status as a result of Brexit, while seeking reciprocal measures for UK citizens in the EU. 
  • Replacing the Tories’ Great Repeal Bill with an EU Rights and Protections Bill which fully protects consumer, worker and environmental rights.
  • A replacement White Paper with a strong emphasis on retaining the benefits of the single market and the customs union. 
  • The devolution of any new powers that are transferred back from Brussels should go straight to the relevant devolved body, whether regional government in England or the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
  • Parliament should be fully involved in the Brexit deal, and MPs should be able to vote on the deal in autumn 2018.
  • A commitment to seek to negotiate strong transitional arrangements when leaving the EU and to ensure there is no cliff-edge for the UK economy. 
  • An acceptance that freedom of movement will end with leaving the EU, but a commitment to prioritise jobs and economy in the negotiations.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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