AS the Conservative Brexiters look increasingly foolish over their chaotic European Union departure, a volte-face by Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer on freedom of movement might have flown below the radar for many people. But his U-turn, while perhaps advantageous for Labour from a short-term perspective of pleasing those lapsed supporters who defected to the Tories at the last election because they loved Brexit and seemed to like the anti-immigration agenda, is nevertheless a huge disappointment.
In grim times such as these, it is human nature to cast around for any kind of positives.
Amid the tragedy of the coronavirus, these are not easy to find, although vaccine success, in spite of seeming roll-out challenges, is definitely one, crucially from a public health perspective but also from an economic viewpoint.
What is plain is that the road ahead, in terms of the economy and living standards, will be difficult, with an expected further surge in unemployment and all the misery that brings.
This is why Sir Keir’s change of heart is particularly disappointing. Who knows exactly what the future will bring in terms of the current turbulent political scene (arising in large part from the Tory Brexit) for Sir Keir, Labour, Scotland and the UK as a whole?
However, a restoration of the freedom of movement of people to and from EU countries is something we know would boost the economy and living standards. The Tory Brexiters were so, so keen to do away with free movement and have done so. The more people now standing up for free movement – and speaking out against what we are seeing on the immigration front from a Conservative Government that often looks like it could not run a menodge – the better.
The Scottish Government has repeatedly hammered home the importance of immigration. Demographics mean that immigration is particularly crucial to the economy and living standards in Scotland. However, it is also very important to the UK as a whole, with its ageing population.
Bank of England Governor Andrew Bailey, addressing an online event staged by Scottish Chambers of Commerce on Tuesday, warned the UK economy was facing its “darkest hour”. Although he did also thankfully reference the impending dawn.
And Chancellor Rishi Sunak talked this week about the economy getting worse before it got better. Of course, Mr Sunak certainly did not help the unemployment picture by refusing repeatedly, for months before his U-turn, to countenance a lengthy extension of the coronavirus job retention scheme. It seemed to take an awful long time for it to dawn on him that such an extension was a necessity.
The Conservatives have, of course, also pulled out all the stops to ensure we have had a hard Brexit. The departure from the single market under the narrow, unambitious free trade deal with the EU done by the Johnson Government is already causing great short-term problems. And it will weigh very heavily on economic output and living standards in the years and decades ahead.
It is a miserable situation indeed.
Amid the Brexit chaos, there have been reports of shortages of certain foods in supermarkets, including fruit and vegetables, in various parts of the UK.
And bosses of major UK supermarket chains have written to Minister for the Cabinet Office Michael Gove citing a need for “urgent intervention” by the Government to prevent further disruption to Northern Ireland’s food supplies.
Michael Gove Picture: Stefan Rousseau/PA
This is obviously just one specific effect of the Brexit folly, albeit a serious one. Meanwhile, the Brexiters continue to fail to demonstrate any meaningful positives. Things they have touted as benefits amount to negatives – just look at the push by Daniel Hannan, recently nominated as a Tory peer by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, to dismantle EU safeguards on the likes of workers’ rights and the environment. And the continuity trade deals repeatedly trumpeted by the Brexiters are merely what the UK had as part of the EU.
The Brexiters, as best as one can tell, seem to be driven by a notion they have sovereignty they did not have before as part of the EU. It is a strange notion but one that seems to have beguiled the arch-Brexiters in the Cabinet. Their imaginary increased sovereignty is, however, of no use to those being hit by the Brexit woes.
There have been few points of light amid the gloom this week.
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One was the viral video of a Dutch customs official, very politely it must be said, explaining the new rules on food products and confiscating ham sandwiches from someone arriving from the UK. The traveller asked politely if he could keep the bread in which the ham had been sandwiched but was told, courteously, that this would not be possible.
“Welcome to the Brexit, sir,” was the polite summation of the situation from the customs officer.
And, in the context of the disruption to the food supply chain, we had a wry observation from LBC radio presenter James O’Brien.
Mr O’Brien, author of How Not To Be Wrong: The Art Of Changing Your Mind, tweeted: “If you do find yourself affected by temporary shortages of certain foodstuffs, do remember that ‘sovereignty’ is a perfect substitute for most ingredients in most recipes.”
Sir Keir had been one of the stronger voices holding the Conservative Leavers to account over Brexit in 2019, before predecessor Jeremy Corbyn was goaded into a general election at the wrong time for his party. This election, of course, gave Mr Johnson his big majority and delivered a hard Brexit.
Mr Corbyn’s support for EU membership in the run-up to the 2016 referendum was somewhat tepid, which was not ideal. That said, it is important to remember he did back it, while the Leave side was making its big false promises.
One lamentable thing since the December 2019 election, and to some extent before, is that the Labour Party has seemed unable or has perhaps been too afraid to tell those Brexiters who either are or were its supporters what the impact of leaving the EU will be on living standards.
And there has certainly seemed to be a growing reluctance on the part of Labour to highlight the economic benefits of immigration to the UK economy and, by direct extension, to everyone’s living standards.
In the post-pandemic world, in the UK and other countries weighed down by increased government borrowing needed to get us through this, it will surely be advantageous to have the maximum number of people of working age paying taxes and supporting public services. In this regard, the clampdown on immigration for which the Tories have already legislated is lamentable.
The Theresa May government’s own forecasts on the impact of Brexit, published back in November 2018, highlight the economic benefits of immigration. That is, the damage from Brexit with an average free trade deal was forecast to be significantly less (though still large) with no change to migration arrangements as opposed to in a future in which there was no net inflow of workers from European Economic Area countries.
The May government forecasts show, on the basis of an average free trade agreement with the EU, the hit to UK gross domestic product relative to having stayed in the bloc would on a 15-year time horizon be 6.7% on the scenario of zero net inflow of EEA workers. With no change to migration arrangements, GDP was forecast, with an average trade deal, to be 4.9% lower in 15 years’ time than if the UK had stayed in the EU.
Boris Johnson Picture: Dominic Lipinski/PA
So you can see the benefit of large-scale immigration from the EU and other EEA countries, previously enabled by the free movement of people, to the UK economy.
Sir Keir has in the past been an advocate for free movement.
However, he has now changed his tune, as highlighted in an interview on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show on Sunday.
Sir Keir’s reasons for his U-turn on this key issue are somewhat perplexing too.
He puts forward his belief that, if Labour were to win the next election, there would not be scope for “major renegotiation” of the agreement struck by Mr Johnson with the EU. Sir Keir focused on the fact there had been more than four years of negotiation to arrive at this.
This will no doubt disappoint many who supported Sir Keir’s previous determination to bring back free movement if it were lost – a commitment Mr Marr highlighted had been made by the now Labour leader last January. Of course, free movement has now been lost with the end of the transition period on December 31. And Sir Keir’s explanation of why he thinks it would not be possible to bring back free movement is not only disappointing but also very unconvincing.
The least-damaging Brexit scenario, from an economic and societal perspective, would have been remaining in the single market, with continuing free movement of people.
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There is already a model in place for being part of the single market without being an EU member – look at Norway and Iceland.
It is difficult to imagine the EU would not be receptive to a UK application to rejoin the single market. And it would be a far more straightforward thing to finalise than the Johnson Brexit deal, for which negotiations proved excruciating as the UK side baffled many with its strange notions of sovereignty. And with its willingness to wilfully take economic damage and cause even greater woes for UK businesses and households by going with a narrow deal, one which ensures plenty of friction on an ongoing basis.
The UK has long been following EU regulations, so anything the Tories do to take us away from them could be quickly corrected.
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Of course, rejoining the EU would be an even-better scenario than just going back into the single market.
However, going back into the single market, and embracing the benefits of free movement of people and agreeing to abide by EU regulations, as the UK did until December 31, is surely something that could be achieved quickly and relatively easily. If there was the will to do it.