Labour's refusal to consider return to EU shows it's just pandering to Boris Johnson's populist myths – Alastair Stewart

In the end, Boris Johnson had to go. Not just because of the moral bankruptcy, but because focus on his dying premiership distracted from creeping policy disasters elsewhere.

Keir Starmer has ruled out rejoining the European Union, pledging instead to 'Make Brexit Work' (Picture: Owen Humphreys/PA)
Keir Starmer has ruled out rejoining the European Union, pledging instead to 'Make Brexit Work' (Picture: Owen Humphreys/PA)

Last week, Labour leader Keir Starmer delivered a speech at the Centre for European Reform, confirming his party would not reverse Brexit.

But Labour's five-point plan to ‘Make Brexit Work’ is a cop-out. It is a cavalier dismissal of the European Union's massive opportunities. It is a confirmation the Labour Opposition has not managed to seize on the moral decay, political stagnation and turgid lies of this Conservative government.

Starmer's claim to fame is that he is no Boris Jonson. But what does Starmer's Britain look like, beyond standing antithetical to Boris’s Brexitopia?

That Starmer's elevation to the leadership was critical to the Labour Party is self-evident. Corbyn's rubbishing of the practicalities of politics had none of the hopeless naivety of Michael Foot. It was dangerous tribalism of the worst sort from a man who had never worked in the real world, and the party paid the price at the 2019 general election.

By this stage, Starmer should be ordering furniture for his Number 10 office as the nation measures the curtains for him. Few would be surprised if Johnson traded Larry the Cat for a white Persian and a Mao suit.

It has taken a deluge of Conservative scandals for Labour to see a boom, and only after Johnson's credibility, the lies and the hapless cover-ups became inescapable.

During the contest to replace Corbyn, Starmer issued a list of ten pledges including common ownership for industries like energy, rail and mail.

Reversing Brexit, healing broken ties with our European allies, and presenting a vision for global Britain that is not chauvinistic and jingoistic should be a Labour priority, particularly during a cost-of-living and energy crisis.

Last year, Starmer said that his "most important pledge" was to make the party electable. If the cost of that is abandoning an interesting policy portfolio to appeal to the people who elected Johnson on a landslide in 2019, is that a positive change or a Faustian deal?

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In 2018, shadow Brexit secretary Starmer told Labour conference delegates that "nobody is ruling out Remain". In the same year, he also suggested if Parliament voted to reject any deal struck between Theresa May's government and Brussels, then MPs could push the decision to a "People's Vote".

The 2019 election manifesto proudly said: “Only a Labour government will put this decision in the hands of the people to give you the final say. This will be a legally binding referendum, and we will implement the people's decision immediately.”

The acceptance of Brexit as a flawed fact of life is surrender. Yes, it isn't easy. Yes, people are tired of it. But to unlink a European future from domestic problems seems remarkably parochial. Surely a discussion on single market membership should form part of a package of emergency measures designed to offset a stagnant economy and our current, unprecedented crises?

Starmer and the Labour Party have never mastered "the vision thing". There is not even a collectable lexicon of slogans. Twenty-five years later and Tony Blair's soundbites resonate as masterful earworms.

Less than six years ago, every young person and pensioner, every business and every home had access to the world's largest trading bloc. To dismiss this but decry a "decade of low growth under the Tories" is nonsensical.

With Johnson's departure confirmed, one wonders how these parties will fare without God's gift of a bogeyman to help set them apart as anything other than mundane.

"The big difference with 1996 is that we have lost that sense of optimism," said the Labour leader at the Centre for European Reform. Starmer even had the cheek to open with a scene-setter ramble: "Tens of millions of people who had laboured under the yoke of tyranny were looking forward to a European future."

Starmer's Brexit policy is stone-cold politics to break the Tory hold on "red wall" constituencies that voted overwhelmingly to leave the EU. Labour regained their first red wall seat in the Wakefield by-election, which was only their first gain in any by-election since 2012.

What else could it be? "You cannot move forward or grow the country or deliver change or win back the trust of those who have lost faith in politics if you're constantly focused on the arguments of the past,” Starmer said.

Not quite. Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar called for the abolition of the House of Lords and the establishment of a UK senate of the nations and regions. Andy Burnham, Mayor of Manchester, said that cities across the UK "aren't empowered enough" and that Scotland is "missing a trick" by not having elected mayors.

In December 2020, Starmer announced Labour intended to launch a UK-wide constitutional commission to "consider how power, wealth and opportunity could be devolved to the most local level".

During his 2022 speech at the Scottish Labour annual conference, Starmer said the commission would "create a new blueprint for a new Britain”.

Abandoning the Brexit argument is a lazy acceptance of a paradigm few would say is working. It is designed to win votes, but that is a depressing indulgence of populism that does not take on, head first, the challenges the country is facing at the moment.

While Starmer is happy to retweak, reform and reshape the United Kingdom in the name of democracy, one has to ask if he simply does not have the stomach to take Britain back to the heart of the European Union.

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