Sunday, 14 January 2018

What would a Labour Brexit look like?

Some Remainers are upset at Jeremy Corbyn again, after he apparently ruled out staying in the single market after Brexit. Many have taken umbrage at his claim that single market membership is intrinsically linked to EU membership, pointing to the EFTA countries Norway, Switzerland, Liechtenstein and Iceland as counterexamples.

But Corbyn is technically correct to say that the single market is not a club that can be joined. You can of course loosely say that the likes of Norway and Switzerland are "in" the single market, but their high level of access comes through the EEA agreement and bilateral treaties respectively, which include exceptions such as agriculture and fisheries. It's not a binary distinction by any means.

Rather than argue semantics, a more fruitful exercise is to analyse what Labour would actually hope to achieve if they were in charge of Brexit negotiations. As with the Conservatives, it is clear enough if you take at face value what they say they want rather than just assuming they don't know what they're talking about.

For Labour the key phrase is a "jobs-first Brexit, which involves retaining the benefits of the single market". This language dates back at least as far as the 2017 manifesto, and immediately makes clear the difference in priorities between the two parties. Of course Tory Brexiters might argue that their approach is good for jobs because the possibility of new trade deals with non-EU countries outweighs restricted access to our most important trading partners. But regardless of whether that is true or not, it is clear that Labour's position is different.

What does "retaining the benefits of the single market" mean in practice? It could mean an arrangement similar to Norway's, with single market participation for almost everything except food, or it could mean a Swiss model with sector-by-sector agreements adding up to basically the same thing. What it surely doesn't mean is the Tory goal of freedom to diverge from EU regulations wherever practical in order to pursue the will-o'-the-wisp of trade deals elsewhere.

The only evidence against this interpretation of Labour's position I can find is the shadow trade secretary Barry Gardiner's comments back in July that the UK must be free to sign its own trade deals or become a "vassal state" of the EU. If this were Labour's policy then it would imply an almost carbon copy of the Tories' approach, but thankfully Gardiner's views appear to not be representative of the party as a whole.

So why do Labour use the "retain the benefits" line rather than simply saying they'll "stay in"? Presumably to keep the actual mechanism for achieving this open, but also to put them in a position to negotiate concessions on the free movement of people between the UK and EU. Again this goal dates back at least as far as the 2017 manifesto, which said in no uncertain terms that "freedom of movement will end when we leave the European Union". There was no doubt then or now that Labour regard this as an essential part of respecting the referendum result.

Before the referendum I wrote that I regard freedom of movement as the single greatest benefit of being in the EU, so that line did lead me to pause for some time before voting Labour again in 2017, despite the fact that the rest of the manifesto was superb. I gave Labour the benefit of the doubt in the end because it seemed like there could be more wriggle room there than meets the eye, and everything Keir Starmer has said in the aftermath backs this up.

Labour's line has been gradually softening on Brexit in the last few months, and their position on free movement is also gradually coming into focus. Starmer notably said in December that there would be "easy movement" of EU workers after Brexit, while reiterating that Labour wanted to retain the full benefits of the customs union and full participation of the single market.

The phrasing entails some, albeit small, concession from the EU on free movement beyond what Cameron obtained in the renegotiation, and you could argue that the EU would under no circumstances allow such a diminishing of one of the "four freedoms". But that wilfully ignores the fact that Ukraine has significant access to the single market with no free movement, that Switzerland reached a compromise to give priority to Swiss-based job seekers, that the EEA agreement contains an emergency brake on immigration, and that Liechtenstein imposes a quota on new residents each year. There may even be scope for reforms across the EU as a whole, such as on the posted workers directive. Any one of these things would be a plausible "concession" in a Labour-negotiated Brexit.

Despite the plausibility of such a deal, it is commonly said that the choice facing Britain is between Canada and Norway models and that trying to achieve any kind of bespoke deal is a waste of time. But in order to keep the Irish border open, as both the EU and UK have committed to in phase 1, the UK must logically have to be in some species of single market and customs union arrangement with the EU, even if it is not "the" single market and "the" customs union. And there is no non-EU country currently in this position. Not Norway, certainly not Canada, not Switzerland, not Iceland, not Liechtenstein. To be clear: any deal which keeps the Irish border open is a bespoke deal.

When looked at objectively there is absolutely no doubt that Labour's position on Brexit is considerably softer than the Tories, and like the Tories getting softer with time. And while the "soft" and "hard" labels now obscure more than they enlighten, if we have to use them then Labour are to all intents and purposes a soft Brexit party.

This is part 2 of a two-part series looking at the major parties' approach to Brexit. See Part 1 for an analysis of the Tory position.

Sunday, 10 December 2017

The Ukrainian Gambit

In the phase 1 Brexit agreement, the UK has made a commitment to keep the Irish border open in all circumstances:

The United Kingdom remains committed to protecting North-South cooperation and to its guarantee of avoiding a hard border. Any future arrangements must be compatible with these overarching requirements. The United Kingdom's intention is to achieve these objectives through the overall EU-UK relationship. Should this not be possible, the United Kingdom will propose specific solutions to address the unique circumstances of the island of Ireland. In the absence of agreed solutions, the United Kingdom will maintain full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union which, now or in the future, support North-South cooperation, the all island economy and the protection of the 1998 Agreement.

Many commentators have interpreted this to mean that the only destination now possible in phase 2 is a so-called soft Brexit, where to all intents and purposes the UK stays in both the single market and customs union. But the text above is clear that this "full alignment" will only happen "in the absence of agreed solutions". So soft Brexit is the backstop solution to the Irish border, which is bad news for the most kamikaze Brexiters, but doesn't say much about what an "agreed solution" might look like.

You could argue that actually a soft Brexit is the only feasible solution which could keep all of the UK's commitments from phase 1, but even if this is true it's impossible to believe that this is the UK government's view given the fulsome support that hard Brexiters like Michael Gove were giving to the prime minister on the morning the agreement was reached (see here from 2:13). Gove gave a hint of the government's vision when he used the phrase "deep and comprehensive free trade agreement" as the hoped-for endstate of negotiations with the EU. This, as he made clear, is not a soft Brexit. But what does it actually mean?

In fact the EU already has several "deep and comprehensive" free trade agreements in place with countries on its eastern border, notably Ukraine. This association agreement gives Ukraine access to the EU single market in certain sectors, without extending freedom of movement to Ukraine (which the EU wouldn't want to do anyway). Which sounds very much like something Gove would want, and has already been cited as a possible model for the UK's future relationship.

(This raises the question of why Ukraine is never brought up as a potential model for future relations, while Canada and Switzerland are endlessly discussed. It doesn't take much marketing nous to answer that question, but I do hope Gove ends up having to sell it in the end. "Like Shakhtar Donetsk, we can participate in Europe without participating in the EU...")

Of course, even a free trade agreement this "deep and comprehensive" doesn't mean the border between the EU and Ukraine is an open one, so any agreement with the UK would have to be deeper still, including some kind of deal on customs, to solve the Irish border problem. And here is where the government's insistence that the UK is a unique situation comes into play. By taking the Ukrainian precedent but from the opposite direction, the UK could try to negotiate a soft Brexit for some sectors of the economy (including those that are needed to keep the Irish border open, but maybe also any that depend critically on single market membership such as financial services and science), while preferring a looser arrangement for others. For those sectors that will continue to be fully aligned, some form of qualified freedom of movement would apply in order for the UK to be granted participation.

The argument would then be over how many sectors the single market and customs union should still apply to. The UK will no doubt argue only a handful, and the EU will insist on everything or nothing. Eventually a compromise will be reached, no doubt much closer to the EU's position than the UK's. But will such an outcome be a soft Brexit or a hard Brexit? Perhaps it's now time to retire those labels.

This is part 1 of a two-part series looking at the major parties' approach to Brexit. See Part 2 for an analysis of the Labour position.

Sunday, 5 November 2017

There are no good arguments against votes at 16

As someone who was denied the chance to vote in a parliamentary election until I was 21, it might not surprise you that I have every sympathy with 16 and 17 year olds who were similarly denied a chance to vote this year. It was a shame, then, that Jim McMahon's bill to reduce the voting age was not brought to a vote on Friday, and dismaying to discover that there are still plenty of opponents of votes at 16 out there, throwing out the usual tired arguments against change.

Most of these arguments tend towards abstract musings on the nature of adulthood, aka "why should we trust 16 year olds with a vote if we don't trust them with a pint?". Which itself raises the question of exactly what kind of damage they are expecting 16 year olds to do with their ballot paper. Give themselves a papercut? The intention of restricting things like alcohol, gambling, smoking, tanning salons, etc. to 18 is clearly to protect children from potentially harming themselves or others. No such harm can come from marking an X with a blunt pencil.

Next comes the reductio ad absurdum argument, namely "why draw the line at 16 and not 15, 14, 13 ....?". This contrives to ignore the fact that the UK has settled over time on a pretty clear two-tier transition to adulthood, with some rights granted at 16 and almost all the rest at 18. The only sensible options for granting voting rights are therefore 16 and 18, and then we're back to what exactly the harm is supposed to be in making it the former.

What is more telling is that opponents of votes at 16 never seem to want to discuss any real world experience. If they ever do it's usually anecdotes of the "I was enlightened enough to vote at 16 but none of my thicko mates were" variety or the marginally more subtle "I thought I knew everything at 16 but now I realise I too was actually a thicko back then". (Common to both is the absence of any shred of doubt about the infallibility of their present-day reasoning).

Luckily though we don't have to rely on half-recalled childhood reminiscences thanks to the natural experiment of letting 16 and 17 year olds vote in the Scottish independence referendum. This was universally considered to have been a great success in Scotland, and the subsequent proposal to reduce the voting age to 16 for all Scottish elections was unanimously passed by their parliament. The evidence submitted while that bill was considered makes for an interesting read, particularly the work of Jan Eichhorn of the University of Edinburgh, who demonstrated that 16-18 year olds were just as engaged in politics as adults and just as independently-minded, and emphasised the potential for increasing political engagement through discussions at school.

The incredibly positive experience of expanding the franchise in Scotland surely makes the same inevitable sooner or later in the rest of the country. So why do the tortuous arguments against it still keep rearing up? I suspect it's because votes at 16 is essentially an instinctive issue, something you form an opinion on first and rationalise later. What it really boils down to is whether you respect young people's opinions or not. And if the overwhelming evidence from Scotland hasn't changed your mind on that, maybe it says more about you than it does about young people.

Monday, 11 September 2017

Why a new "centrist" party would probably fail

It's been heartening to see that the softening of Labour's Brexit position over the summer has not led to a decline in its polling figures, and may even be driving them up a little. Labour's change was apparently motivated at least in part by the fear that a new "centrist" party would emerge that would hurt them more than the Tories. Certainly, there's been much talk recently of such a party, despite or perhaps because of the lacklustre performance of the existing centrist party, the Lib Dems, in the snap election.

The belief that a new centrist party would sweep all before it is based on the idea that if Labour moves left while the Tories move right, a great yawning gap of homeless voters will appear in the middle. Assuming voters are normally distributed across the political spectrum, the picture looks something like this:

Which is fine as far as it goes, but the label "centrist" bugs me, both as a tag for the potential new party and in its other fashionable role as a Twitter insult favoured by lefties. As far as I understand the term, it is essentially a relabelling of "Blairite" for a post-Blair age (just as the more ungainly "neoliberal" refers to Thatcherites post-Thatcher), taking in Lib Dems and perhaps the liberal end of the Tory party as well.

What groups these tribes together is pro-Europeanism; they are the classic Remainers. And your classic Remainer is far from centrist, as a more appropriate 2D view of politics shows:

(The "open" axis here represents liberal, Remainer opinion, while "closed" voters were for Leave.)

As "centrists" are firmly Remain, they are well away from the centre ground on this axis. The centrist label is valid, but only if you project their 2D position onto the one-dimensional left-right spectrum.

It's worse than that, though, because pro-European liberalism is the reason for setting up the new centrist party in this first place: they want to fight on the open-closed "Brexit" axis, not the left-right economic axis. If you project the parties on to the centrists' preferred battleground, the picture looks completely different:

In this picture the "centrists" are in no way centrist at all, in fact espousing a radical liberal position. Which is not to say that they couldn't win from there, but it would clearly be an uphill battle for voters, not the walkover they fondly imagine.

The irony here is that it is in fact Labour who have neatly positioned themselves as the centrists on Brexit, triangulating their hearts out in the best traditions of Blairism, in order to focus their energies on the other axis. And what's more, it's working.

Monday, 12 June 2017

Life in Remainville: Episode 3, A New Hope

So it turns out the method of counting window posters is scientific, with Jeff Smith crushing all before him:

+/- %
Jeff Smith
John Leech
Liberal Democrat
Sarah Heald
Laura Bannister
Sally Carr
Women’s Equality

Far from being a marginal, Withington must now be one of the safest seats in the country. The Lib Dems remain in second place but will surely now turn their attention to more winnable targets. The Greens' collapse mirrors their poor performance nationally, while the Tories have benefitted only marginally from the disappearance of UKIP.

What a turnaround we've seen since the start of the campaign, and even the local elections, when it seemed like Big Andy would be the only Labour politician left standing by June. Perhaps in fact it was those local elections that made all the difference. As Sr. Spielbergo noted on that day, the poor result for Labour could have had a positive psychological effect by bringing home the scale of the defeat they faced if they didn't start pulling together, while conversely the Tories started to believe in the inevitability of their landslide. The manifestos that emerged shortly afterwards reflected this: a well-crafted effort from Labour that was both bold and could be embraced by the whole party, while the Tory manifesto was filled with bizarre hobby horses and dripping with hubris.

The local elections also severely hobbled the Lib Dems, who threw away the momentum they had carefully build up over the course of many by-elections with a disastrous start to their campaign, and actually managed to lose seats on May 4th. By the time Labour had successfully established the election battleground on the economic axis, there was no way in for a Brexit-oriented interloper. The transformation is most obvious in next door Gorton, which the Lib Dems had a good chance of winning in the original by-election but in the general election faded back into fourth. The final result nationally was actually not too bad for them, and perhaps their time will come when Brexit actually happens, but for now it's all too soon.

When I've looked back at my 2015 piece on Corbyn written just before he became leader, I've mostly been struck by how optimistic I was, even so soon after the terrible and unexpected disaster of the general election. That optimism has, to put it mildly, been tested by the events since, and looking for hopeful signs was a forlorn exercise right up until 11 May when the manifesto was leaked. By 26 May, YouGov was indicating a hung parliament. Now I'm struck by how close we've got to scenario #1 in such an astonishingly short period of time. Perhaps that long-hoped-for, never-to-arrive Progressive Moment brought on by the financial crisis is finally upon us.

It's also interesting how closely the general election has mirrored Corbyn's first leadership campaign. To political insiders too familiar with his long history as a fringe politician and champion of lost causes, he was a no-hoper. But to the ordinary voter, he's a fresh face with a sensible and inspiring platform. And all the feared attacks from the right wing press reminding us of the skeletons in his closet really did just bounce off him. Perhaps finally their power is broken.

(It's remarkable too how Scotland has yet again played a decisive role in proceedings: this time through electing enough new Tory MPs to keep them in government.)

Before getting carried away, I remain thoroughly suspicious about Labour's approach to Brexit in general (reaffirmed by John McDonnell yesterday), and angry in particular at their manifesto commitment to end free movement, but I've never been under any illusion that my views are popular and perhaps Labour's cunning fudge of the issue will continue to be acceptable to both pro-European voters and a sizeable chunk of former UKippers for as long as they need it to be. One thing is for sure, with a hung parliament the prospects for a non-catastrophic Brexit now look rosier that at any time since the referendum.

That is a concern for another day anyway. For now the most important thing for us humble voters is to sit back and enjoy the beautiful and unexpected spectacle of Tory disarray. A toast to optimism, and a mission accomplished.