Labour has done it. It now has its own three-word slogan. “Make Brexit work” was the defining phrase of Keir Starmer’s speech on Brexit last night (4 July). Labour’s exact arguments remain, to say the least, vague. But the broad outline of its position on Brexit has emerged.
What did Starmer say? He confirmed that Labour would not rejoin the single market or customs union. Instead, the party would try to reduce regulation on trade through a veterinary agreement and accepting EU food standards; pursue intelligence and security cooperation; and establish professional qualifications alignment.
A new veterinary agreement with the EU is not the type of policy that will spur voters into polling stations. But “make Brexit work” does convey both an acceptance of the referendum result and a commitment to ameliorate its negative economic impact. It’s worth recognising that, at its core, Labour’s policy respects the government’s “hard” Brexit. That will allow Labour to focus on the issues it thinks will define the next general election, such as the cost of living.
As we recently discussed on the podcast, many Labour members voted for Starmer because they saw him as an “electable radical”. Until now, policy has been overshadowed by attempts to rebuild Labour’s patriotic credentials (see flags at press conferences and odes to the Queen) and to clamp down on anti-Semitism. He’s trying to balance, as he put it, “claiming the centre ground of British politics” with capturing the dynamism to inspire the electorate.
The risk with that strategy is that for every carefully chosen word, for every hesitation, people see inauthenticity. It weakens the impact of the message. Only three years ago, Starmer attended a People’s Vote rally that campaigned for a second referendum. Now he’s calling for Labour to Make Brexit Work.
[ See also: Who would win if an election was held tomorrow? ]
Amid all this, a source of irritation for Labour HQ has been the recent off-track announcements of the party’s ascendant mayors. Sadiq Khan has taken time out to wander through America’s fields of wheat – sorry, weed – and Andy Burnham is proportional representation’s biggest new fan. Meanwhile, the party’s leader in Scotland, Anas Sarwar, travelled to Westminster yesterday to call for the House of Lords to be abolished in favour of a senate of the nations and regions.
Their interventions highlight the difficulties of being both electable and radical. Yes, constitutional reform may be necessary. But does Labour want to be constantly discussing House of Lords revisions as the cost-of-living crisis deepens over the winter? In any case, the announcement on Brexit shows Labour is building its case for the next general election, brick by brick.
This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; subscribe here.