Labour’s six tests for Brexit are “bollocks” – but they could yet save the United Kingdom

The opposition’s tests for Brexit are imprecise – but that means a Brexit compromise might yet be found. 

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Much fun was had by correspondents writing up an account of a recording of Barry Gardiner, Labour’s shadow secretary for international trade, at a private meeting in Brussels in March of this year, in which he described Labour’s six tests for a Brexit deal as “bollocks”. For non-Anglo-Saxon readers, bollocks is a term meaning “not very good” deriving from somewhere between the 17th and 19th centuries.

Perhaps because there is widespread agreement that the tests are indeed bollocks, not everyone charged with defending Labour’s Brexit policy has been able to remember them, as Richard Burgon demonstrated recently by improvising his own tests in place of the original.

Time available for developing viable parliamentary strategies to avoid exiting the EU without a deal is short. Since the six tests are one of the underpinnings of Labour’s strategy of opposing the draft withdrawal agreement deal, and thus one of the things that leaves a no-deal exit as a distinct possibility, it’s therefore worth looking back at thems.

Doing so will demonstrate that Barry Gardiner was right about the tests being bollocks, and for at least three sets of interlocking reasons.

First, individually they don’t make sense. One group of tests (questions one, three, four, five and six – using the order in which Labour list them) makes little sense because they are too vague and subjective. The most extreme case is test six: “Does [the deal] deliver for all nations and regions of the UK?” This could be answered however Labour chooses, once the party has privately settled on an answer to the question begged: “deliver what?”

Four of the other tests suffer from the same problem. “Does [the deal] ensure a strong and collaborative future relationship with the EU?” What is “strong” and “collaborative”?

“Does [the deal] ensure fair management of migration in the interests of the economy and communities?” What is “fair”, and, on whom is it fair?

“Does [the deal] defend rights and protections and prevent a race to the bottom?” is unambiguous in the principle it wants to apply, but too vague to commit Labour to anything. How much protection means you have “defended”? All rights or just some? “Does [the deal] protect national security and our capacity to tackle cross-border crime?” How do we measure “national security” and whether it’s preserved?

The second test, however, is not vague at all. It’s the one Gardiner singled out as an example, and it’s quite specific. It insists that the deal must “deliver the exact same benefits as we currently have as members of the single market and customs union”. No deal that the government (or Labour) might produce will meet this test; it’s one that could not be met without remaining in the European Union itself, which is of course a policy that both major parties are, at the time of writing, against. This test is therefore bollocks because it is not a real test, but an objection. 

The second reason why the tests don’t make sense, and are bollocks, is that collectively they are not able – and we can presume not designed – to suit the implied purpose, and are therefore something of a sham. 

The hope – just as with Gordon Brown’s five tests for joining the Euro, which were failed for the last time in 2003 – is that the onlooker is convinced that the test designer forgoes the temptation to decide the matter at hand according to Machiavellian political advantage. This is done by emphasising quantitative criterion, which can be decided on objectively, technocratically, and in the open. 

The “X-tests” gesture is related to the practice of setting up quangos to implement policy objectives, like the Bank of England or the Office for Budget Responsibility. 

The quangos have mandates, and choose among policies of sorts day by day according to whether these mandates are met or not. The X tests are akin to delegating to the non-Machiavellian gremlin inside the leadership. The Machiavellian self is restrained by being unable to fiddle the tests in the glare of the public eye. 

Quangos live on, of course, because they have to make repeated policy decisions. The tests are a delegation for one-off choice, and die with that choice.

Except that with Labour’s six tests for a Brexit deal, the freedom to decide using electoral advantage is preserved anyway. Most of the tests are vague enough to be fiddled so that the deal fails, and as such one of them will always fail. And there are no independent arbiters employed like the independent researchers working on Brown’s five tests.

Of course a third and final reason why the six tests are bollocks is that there is extra ambiguity in the test scores due to the fact that “the deal” is – and this was known at the time of the tests’ writing – just a withdrawal agreement plus a series of aspirations contained in the political declaration. 

As noted by Stephen Bush several months ago, the tests can’t be applied with any precision because we don’t know what a deal to conclude our future relationship would look like.

The same vagueness of the tests that allows them to fail Theresa May’s deal when it suits Labour also allows them to present their own aspirations as something that would lead to a deal that passes.

This author reads and hears constantly that the government did nothing at all to court Labour MPs to find common ground over its “deal”. This is more curious for noting in retrospect that part of the underpinning of Labour’s so-far solid confrontation is bollocks, just as Barry Gardiner confessed in private. Had there been some kind of reaching out, those minded to do so in Labour could have used the bollocks – the vagueness and the sham of it all – as cover to vote for a compromise of sorts. In which case the bollocks would after all have turned out to have been “the dog’s bollocks” (which, for any non-British readers, is confusingly quite the opposite of “bollocks”; something good and just right).

One can only hope that as 29 March approaches, the bollocks in the six tests, and the government’s own bollocks (a summary of which is well beyond the scope of this article) can still yet provide the flexibility to design an alternative to a disorderly exit.