The Labour split on AV deepens

Shadow cabinet minister John Healey leads the charge against electoral reform.

The electoral reform debate is stuttering into life. Today sees the official launch of both the Labour Yes campaign and Labour No campaigns. It's a critical moment, not least because Labour votes will determine the result of the referendum. The most recent YouGov poll on the subject showed that while Lib Dem voters are overwhelmingly in favour of reform (69:15) and the Tories are largely opposed (48:29), Labour voters are split 42:33 in favour of AV.

With this in mind, Ed Miliband will appeal to his party's activists not to turn the plebiscite into a referendum on Nick Clegg. He will say: "We can't reduce the second referendum in British political history to a verdict on one man . . . the change to the alternative vote deserves our support because it is fairer and because it encourages a better politics."

He will add that AV "should be the beginning of the journey, not the end", although this is thought to reflect his support for a fully elected second chamber rather than a late conversion to proportional representation.

Meanwhile, in an op-ed piece for the Independent, John Healey, one of three shadow cabinet members who oppose reform (the others are Caroline Flint and Mary Creagh) manages to cite just above every misleading argument against AV. He repeats the lazy claim that the system has been "rejected the world over" (bar Australia, Fiji and Papua New Guinea).

In fact, as Healey should know, AV is the method used for Labour and Lib Dem leadership elections, for many US mayoral and district elections, for most student union elections and for internal elections in numerous businesses and trade unions.

The piece is starkly headlined "Vote refom would benefit only BNP, Ukip and Lib Dems" (ie, do you really want to give the fascists a helping hand?), a claim that, in the case of the BNP, has been exposed repeatedly as shameless scaremongering.

As Peter Kellner has written, "AV is the best system for keeping the BNP at bay. The party would seldom, if ever, win any contest under AV." A system that forces parties to attract second-preference votes would lock out Nick Griffin's mob. It is for this reason that the BNP itself is calling for a No vote.

Whether Miliband's modest call for reform is enough to offset such demagoguery remains to be seen.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

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