Labour Stands Exposed on Brexit
26 November 2018
In March 2017, the Labour Party announced “six tests” that it would use to evaluate any Brexit deal struck by the government. This was always a flawed approach, betraying the party’s incapacity to lead the country. And now Labour stands badly exposed, because Theresa May’s Brexit deal actually meets Labour’s tests.
Six Tests: The Evacuation of Agency
The very idea of setting “tests” for the government to meet betrayed Labour’s disarray and cowardice over Brexit and its inability to lead. First, it handed all agency to the Conservative government. Rather than working to develop a distinctive platform for Brexit and post-Brexit Britain, Labour adopted a passive position, waiting to see what the Tories came up with, which would then be subjected to technocratic evaluation. This reflects a wider malaise on the left, where almost no one believes in their own political agency, seeing the right as the only ones able to act. It also reflects a general trend towards technocracy, where the responsibility to decide (sovereignty) gives way to an evaluation against an ostensibly “neutral” or less contestable standard. In this sense, Labour’s “six tests” on Brexit are reminiscent of Gordon Brown’s “five economic tests” for adopting the Euro.
Second, the tests reflected the cowardice of the party leadership. Labour is badly split over Brexit, reflecting its two distinctive social bases: the pro-Remain metropolitan middle classes, and the pro-Leave working-class heartlands, from which party elites have been increasingly estranged since the late 1980s. Rather than developing a platform capable of uniting these groups around a progressive Brexit, the leadership hid behind the six tests.
However, this could only disguise Labour’s internal rifts for so long. The second test encapsulates both of the aforementioned weaknesses. It reads: “Does it deliver the ‘exact same benefits’ as we currently have as members of the Single Market and Customs Union?” First, the test deliberately quotes former Brexit Secretary David Davis, setting up his statement as a benchmark - thus deferring to the Tories. Second, this test could only conceal Labour’s divisions temporarily. Obviously, no arrangement outside of EU membership can possibly secure the exact same benefits as remaining within the EU. Adopting this as a benchmark was therefore politically puerile.
More importantly, it is a test that the government was destined to fail, giving die-hard Remainers license to oppose any Brexit deal. Jeremy Corbyn’s inability to contain these forces within the Parliamentary Labour Party has been on-show since the party conference, where the Remainer Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer raised the spectre of a second referendum. The leadership announced it would whip MPs to oppose the Brexit deal even before it was made public. May is already framing the parliamentary vote as a choice between her deal, no deal, or no Brexit (presumably through a second referendum). Since Labour won’t countenance no deal, and clearly has no alternative plan of its own – making calls for a general election entirely pointless – the party is effectively siding against Brexit. A showdown with its working-class, Leave-supporting voters is inevitable.
May’s Deal Largely Meets Labour’s Tests
The irony, though, is that – the strict but absurd second test aside – the deal secured by May largely satisfies Labour’s tests. This is partly because they are worded so vaguely but, more importantly, because the mainstream of the Labour and the Conservative parties, lacking any positive vision of the future, share a commitment to minimising any disruption to the status quo. May has delivered the “Brexit in Name Only” that both sides have been craving.
To understand this, note that the UK will formally leave the EU in March 2019. There will then be a transition period until the end of 2020, during which existing EU rules will continue to apply in full. If the UK and EU cannot conclude an agreement on their future relationship before this time, as seems highly likely, “backstop” arrangements kick in, which keep the UK aligned to EU rules.
(1) Does it ensure a strong and collaborative future relationship with the EU? Starmer is now emphasising that the political declaration on the post-Brexit relationship is short and non-binding. But that is what we would expect from any departure agreement; the EU has refused to discuss future relations until the withdrawal agreement was finalised. Yet Britain’s so-called “departure” actually maintains an incredibly strong relationship with the EU. During the transition period, to maintain a “single customs territory”, the UK will remain subject to EU economic regulations and European Court of Justice rulings, with “appropriate enforcement mechanisms”. This includes existing rules on state aid and competition, which would outlaw parts of Corbyn’s last election manifesto. Under the “backstop”, Northern Ireland in particular will be tightly tied to the EU. Any deviation from the rules is subject to a joint arbitration panel, with equal representation from both sides, with the ECJ acting as final arbiter. The UK cannot even exit the “backstop” without EU approval – an even worse situation than EU membership, which can at least be terminated by triggering Article 50. The Financial Times rightly describes these provisions as “the most severe restrictions placed on any country outside of the single market.” Moreover, EU officials have privately admitted that the withdrawal agreement is a template for the future relationship. How much “stronger” could UK-EU relations possibly be, short of actual EU membership? Certainly it meets Starmer’s requirements of “continued tariff-free trade” and no “divergence from the EU market”.
(2) Does it deliver the “exact same benefits” as we currently have as members of the Single Market and Customs Union? This silly test is dealt with above. Strictly interpreted, it can never be met. But insofar as Labour has persistently demanded “a customs union” with the EU, the clear prospect of a permanent customs union should delight them.
(3) Does it ensure the fair management of migration in the interests of the economy and communities? Although this test is remarkably vague, May’s deal seems to satisfy Karmer’s sole explanation of it: that it should “protect the rights of EU nationals already in the UK, and UK nationals living in the EU”. The agreement extends Freedom of Movement for EU citizens (and their families) to come to work in the UK to the end of 2020, while UK nationals (and their families) can only claim this in their current EU state of residence. Spouses and dependents will retain a lifelong right subsequently to join citizens exercising these rights. Both sides are required to offer streamlined permanent residency arrangements. The agreement does not match the generosity of the proposal made by The Full Brexit contributors to offer full citizenship to EU nationals (see Proposal #1 – Give EU Nationals Resident in Britain Full British Citizenship). But it certainly meets Starmer’s weaker test.
(4) Does it defend rights and protections and prevent a race to the bottom? Again, Labour should be delighted by May’s deal. As part of the EU’s attempt to avoid the UK becoming more competitive, it has imposed non-regression clauses covering the environment and labour rights. Starmer is now complaining that the clauses do not bind the UK to keep up with any improvements in EU protections, which is to shift the goalposts. But more importantly, it betrays Labour’s lack of faith in its own capacity to ratchet up social protections, which it could readily do by winning a general election and enacting laws through parliament. The only explanation is a belief that Labour cannot win power, and that the right holds all the cards, making it essential to tie UK rules to EU ones in perpetuity. This is despite the fact that, as explained previously on The Full Brexit, EU labour rights are actually weaker than UK labour laws, and are being steadily undermined by ECJ rulings (see Analysis #13 - The Chimera of Workers' Rights in the EU).
(5) Does it protect national security and our capacity to tackle cross-border crime? By this, Starmer means he wants the UK to remain members of Europol and Eurojust and retain the European Arrest Warrant. During the transitional period, the UK will remain able to use the EAW, use EU crime databases, and continue to participate in cross-border policing operations under Europol. This will stop when the transition period ends, but the government has already said it will seek to maintain these arrangements thereafter. Again, the EU will not agree to anything on the future relationship until the withdrawal agreement is concluded.
(6) Does it deliver for all regions and nations of the UK? By this Starmer meant that the government had fractious relations with Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. Since then, of course, the Tories were forced to ally with the Democratic Unionist Party, tying Westminster far closer to Norther Ireland. May’s deal avoids a hard border in Ireland and an internal customs border in the Irish Sea, neutralising the main threat to the UK’s integrity at the expense of continued EU suzerainty. Beyond Northern Ireland, the terms apply equally to all parts of the UK.
In short, Labour can no long hide behind its flimsy six tests. They emerged from terror of departing from the status quo, and an inability to lead the country in a new direction. This fear and weakness are shared equally by the Conservative party. Accordingly, a Conservative government has managed to negotiate a deal that largely satisfies Labour’s demands. By its own standards, Labour should vote for May’s shoddy agreement. That it will not only exposes its shallow opportunism.
Calls are now mounting for Corbyn to push for a second referendum. If this occurs, Labour will permanently alienate its Leave-supporting voters, and be responsible for a mortal blow to British democracy, with repercussions that will last a generation. For now, the party’s official priority is to bring down May’s government and force a general election. But there is no guarantee that they would win; polls persistently put them behind the Tories. More importantly, even if they did win, what exactly would they do next? They have no plan for Brexit. They are convinced that There is No Alternative. They would only, as May has done, deliver Brexit in Name Only.
 Keir Starmer, “What Next for Britain?", Speech to Chatham House, 27 March 2017.
 Addressing the House of Commons, Davis said the government sought “a comprehensive free trade agreement and a comprehensive customs agreement that will deliver the exact same benefits as we have, but also enable… [the UK to] form trade deals with the rest of the world”. Hansard, 24 January 2017.
 See Lee Jones “Brexit in Name Only: Causes and Consequences”, Briefings for Brexit, 1 November 2018.
 “May’s Brexit compromise comes with high price”, Financial Times, 13 November 2018.
 “Brussels seeks permanent post-Brexit customs union”, Politico.eu, 14 November 2018.
 See European Commission, “Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland”, 14 November 2018.
About the author
Lee Jones is Reader in International Politics at Queen Mary University of London.
This work represents the views of the authors only. It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.