Ian McConnell: Starmer must raise head above red wall and see Brexit's awful reality

Sir Keir Starmer’s seeming new-found fondness for Brexit is blossoming at a time when polling has been indicating a big majority of people in the UK now think leaving the EU was a mistake <i>(Image: Picture: Jacob King/PA Wire)</i>
Sir Keir Starmer’s seeming new-found fondness for Brexit is blossoming at a time when polling has been indicating a big majority of people in the UK now think leaving the EU was a mistake (Image: Picture: Jacob King/PA Wire)

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer’s conversion to the Brexit cause has been nothing short of astounding.

This erstwhile champion of the Remain cause has changed his tune entirely, and has in recent days declared that the return of free movement of people between the UK and European Union would be a “red line” for him.

He has talked about “immigration dependency” among businesses, making clear he views this as a negative thing. And he has repeated that Tory Brexiter mantra about “cheap labour” in the context of the debate over free movement of people.

It is a most curious situation.

Sir Keir’s conversion, in its intensity, seems very comparable now to that of former Conservative prime minister Liz Truss. If anything, it is even more dramatic.

And it is difficult now to see much difference at all in the views of Sir Keir and current prime minister Rishi Sunak when it comes to Brexit and immigration.

What is also interesting is that the worse things get on the Brexit front, in terms of skills and labour market shortages and huge problems for exporters as well as general havoc, the more Sir Keir seems to want to embrace the current dismal situation.

He seems to think that trying to move forward with something that is hugely detrimental is far better than the relatively simple and blindingly obvious solution of rejoining the European single market, and regaining the enormous benefits of frictionless trade and free movement of people. And yes, these are surely major benefits for the economy and overall living standards.

Regaining full membership of the EU would, of course, be a more complex task given the UK would on the face of it under the current rules not be in the privileged position it was in before of not having to commit to joining the euro.

Of course, it seems the bottom line is that Sir Keir no longer wants free movement of people between the UK and EU. He presumably did want this when he was arguing so vociferously against Brexit in the run-up to the 2019 general election.

Another remarkable point here is that Sir Keir’s seeming new-found fondness for Brexit is blossoming at a time when polling has been indicating a big majority of people in the UK now think leaving the EU was a mistake.

A poll published earlier this month by YouGov showed, nearly two years since the UK left the European single market on December 31, 2020, support for Brexit is at a record low. Only 32% of the British public said it was right to vote to leave and 56% declared it was wrong to do so.

HeraldScotland:
HeraldScotland:

Maybe Sir Keir should reflect on those findings.

Sadly, he instead appears determined to pander in the extreme to the so-called “red wall” voters who rallied in 2019 behind Boris Johnson to “get Brexit done” and propelled the then Conservative leader into power. Of course, the form of Brexit that Mr Johnson wanted done was one which clamped down on immigration, and it seemed lamentably that is what the “red wall” voters wanted as well.

Of course, in the 2016 Brexit referendum, many of these voters appeared to be persuaded by the Leave camp that the root of their troubles was immigration and the EU in general.

This was a ridiculous notion, given the boost to economic growth potential that comes with strong net immigration, a fillip that is particularly important to a country such as the UK facing huge demographic challenges with an ageing population.

However, for some reason, many of those who felt left behind economically fell for the Leave camp claim hook, line and sinker, even though their troubles had in fact been caused by savage Tory austerity which began in 2010. Not to mention the blow from deindustrialisation of the UK economy under Margaret Thatcher.

Sir Keir, it seems, would rather pander to the false belief among large parts of the electorate that free movement between the UK and EU was the cause of their troubles than explain why it was actually Tory austerity which was at the root of it all. Quite why is impossible to fathom.

Another interesting dimension here is, of course, the Scottish one.

It is difficult to tell whether or not Sir Keir’s seeming refusal to lift his head above the red wall on the Brexit and immigration issues means that he has given up on a revival for Labour in Scotland for the foreseeable future.

Sir Keir should know at least as well as anyone else that there was a very clear Remain vote in Scotland, as there was in some other parts of the UK including London. And Scotland faces particularly acute demographic challenges.

What truly beggars belief is that Sir Keir seems not just willing to get on with the Tory hard Brexit but passionate about doing so, in spite of the huge economic damage.

There is also obviously the issue of it being good from a societal perspective to have greater numbers of working-age people paying taxes for the public services which will become much more expensive as the UK population ages. Does Sir Keir not realise this?

The Theresa May government’s forecasts, published in November 2018, showed Brexit would, with an average free trade deal with the EU, result in UK gross domestic product in 15 years’ time being 4.9% lower than if the country had stayed in the bloc if there were no change to migration arrangements. Or 6.7% worse on the basis of zero net inflow of workers from European Economic Area countries.

Loss of economic output on that scale is, of course, hugely detrimental to living standards. Sir Keir seems to be alluding to living standards with his wide-of-the-mark “cheap labour” jibes but seems to be missing the big picture entirely on this front.

It is difficult to fathom just what is driving Sir Keir’s increasingly hard line on Brexit and immigration, with his dramatic talk of free movement of people being a “red line”.

His is a truly astonishing conversion to the Brexit cause, flying in the face of all the evidence of the damage already caused and perfectly sound forecasts of much worse to come. It also comes at the most bizarre of times as more and more voters wake up to the fact they were taken for fools by the Tory Leavers.

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