Nick Clegg at the launch of the Liberal Democrat European election campaign in Colchester last week. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Who will win the first-time vote in 2015?

Labour has a 16-point lead over the Tories, with the Lib Dems in fifth place behind Ukip and the Greens. 

At the general election, a year tomorrow, there will be 3.3 million young people (some of whom were not born when Tony Blair became prime minister) eligible to vote for the first time. In what one Labour strategist recently told me would be a "bloody close" contest, they have the potential to play a decisive role. But a new poll by British Future shows that 59 per cent aren't planning to vote at all. This compares to 40 per cent of all voters and 25 per cent of the over-65s (the most likely group to turn out). 

Among the 41 per cent of 17-21-year-olds who are certain to take part, there is more grim news for the Lib Dems. Labour is on first place on 41 per cent, followed by the Tories on 25 per cent, Ukip on 12 per cent and the Greens on 9 per cent, with Nick Clegg's party trailing in fifth place on just 5 per cent. Nearly four years after the Lib Dems broke their pre-election promise not to vote in favour of increasing tuition fees, the damage endures. The news is all the more dispiriting for the party given their traditional strength among this demographic. At the 2010 general election, 30 per cent of 18-24-year-olds voted Lib Dem, compared to 31 per cent for Labour and 30 per cent for the Tories. 

There is better news for Ed Miliband. Unlike among the electorate in general, he is rated as by far the best party leader. While 58 per cent say that David Cameron does not understand their concerns, only 46 per cent say the same of Miliband, giving him a net rating of -14, ahead of Cameron (-35), Clegg (-37) and Boris Johnson (-27). The Labour leader is also narrowly rated as the best prime minister with a score of 17 per cent, putting him ahead of Cameron (15 per cent), Johnson (15 per cent), Alan Sugar (12 per cent) , recent NS guest editor Russell Brand (12 per cent), Jeremy Clarkson (11 per cent), Nigel Farage (9 per cent) and Clegg, who is level with Jamie Oliver on 6 per cent. 

With his promise of policies to aid "Generation Rent" (including a cap on rent increases, longer tenancies and a ban on letting agent fees), of a "radical offer" on tuition fees, and of a guaranteed job for all 18-24-year-olds out of work for more than a year, Miliband has made a conscious appeal to the young as the Tories have focused on the old (promising to maintain the triple-lock on the state pension and introducing new high-interest pensioner bonds). The challenge for Labour will be ensuring that they turn out. Among those who are likely but not certain to vote, Labour's lead rises from 16 points (41-25) to 22, showing the benefits of maximising participation. If Miliband is to win in 2015, a successful voter registration drive will be crucial. 

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.