Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband attend a ceremony at Buckingham Palace to mark the Duke of Edinburgh's 90th birthday on June 30, 2011 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Whisper it, but there's almost nothing Labour and the Lib Dems disagree on

Compared to the New Labour years, the degree of policy overlap between the two parties is remarkable.

Yesterday's PMQs bout between Harriet Harman and Nick Clegg was one of the most quietly revealing for months. Berated by Harman over the Lib Dems' support for the NHS reforms, the bedroom tax and the abolition of the 50p tax rate, Clegg chose not to respond by defending his party's conduct or by dismissing Labour as a juvenile opposition unprepared for "grown up" government. Instead, he devoted almost all of his time to condemning the last Labour government: "the party of 40p [tax], sweetheart deals in the NHS, the party of Fred Goodwin, and the party against apprenticeships". 

Clegg's nostalgia for the pre-2010 era is understandable. Back then, the Lib Dems were able to draw a series of progressive and politically beneficial dividing lines with Labour: the Iraq war, civil liberties, tuition fees, electoral reform, tax, banking regulation and NHS privatisation. But owing to Ed Miliband, these differences have expired. In his first speech as Labour leader, which I described at the time as "a love letter to Lib Dem voters", Miliband condemned the Iraq war ("I do believe that we were wrong"), denounced New Labour's approach to civil liberties ("government can itself become a vested interest"), criticised the introduction of top-up fees ("stuck in old thinking about higher and higher levels of personal debt"), the refusal to tax the rich fairly and the "light touch" system of financial regulation ("responsibility in this country shouldn’t just be about what you can get away with.") Far from being the party of 40p, sweetheart deals in the NHS and Fred Goodwin, Labour has become the party of 50p, anti-privatisation deals in the NHS and Glass-Steagall.

Compared to the Blair-Brown years, the degree of policy consensus between Miliband and Clegg's parties is remarkable. The Labour leader's support for an in/out EU referendum following any new transfer of powers from Britain to Brussels (a stance identical to that of the Lib Dems) is the latest in a long list of areas where the reds and the yellows have converged. Both parties now support: 

- A referendum on EU membership the next time any powers are transferred (and support for an "in" vote)

- The introduction of a mansion tax on property values above £2m 

- The reduction of the voting age to 16 

- The removal of Winter Fuel Payments from wealthy pensioners 

- A 2030 decarbonisation target 

- An elected House of Lords

- Greater oversight of the intelligence services 

- Radical devolution from Westminster to local authorities and city regions

- Party funding reform

- An end to unqualified teachers in state schools 

- A ban on for-profit free schools 

- Tougher banking regulation and the potential separation of banks' retail and investment arms 

- A mass housebuilding programme, including new social housing 

- The Human Rights Act

After all of these, the remaining differences between the parties (with the possible exception of deficit reduction and electoral reform) are largely trivial. Labour, for instance, has pledged to reintroduce the 10p tax rate, while the Lib Dems are committed to a higher personal allowance of £12,500. The Lib Dems are resolutely opposed to Miliband's planned energy price freeze. But it is easy to imagine the parties coming to an agreement ("we'll give you your energy price freeze if you give us our £12,500 personal allowance") in the event of coalition negotiations.

While it suits both sides to play up their differences for political purposes (the retention of Lib Dem defectors is crucial to Labour's election chances), the reality is that, beyond the bluster, there is now very little they disagree on. As party president Tim Farron (and the party's likely next leader) told me last year: "I think he [Ed Miliband] is somebody who is genuinely of the Robin Cook wing of the Labour Party, from their perspective what you’d call the 'soft left'. Somebody who is not a Luddite on environmental issues, somebody who’s open minded about modernising our democracy, somebody who’s instinctively a bit more pluralistic than most Labour leaders and a bit more internationalist as well." Certainly it is impossible to imagine Clegg, or any other Lib Dem, ever delivering a Labour-facing version of his 2013 conference speech in which he listed 16 Conservatives policies he had blocked.

What is now clear is that it would be far easier for Labour and the Lib Dems to come to an agreement in 2015 than it would be for the Tories and the Lib Dems to do so. And if, as is possible, both of the main parties win enough seats to form a majority government with Lib Dem support that may prove very significant. 

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.