David Lammy, the shadow foreign secretary, has begun to break Labour’s long silence on Brexit.
In his speech to the Trade Unlocked conference in Birmingham he signalled that a government led by Keir Starmer would seek a “special relationship” with the EU. He criticised the Conservatives’ approach to trade as being to “shut down 100 shops in the centre of town, and open just two in their place, many thousand miles away”.
He vowed to go through the trade co-operation agreement (TCA) with the EU “page by page” when it is reopened in 2026 and suggested there could be flexibility on visa rules. And with food inflation running at 18.3 per cent, and many experts attributing that to disruption to the UK’s supply chains caused by Brexit, Lammy said a Labour government may be willing to drop checks on food in return for Britain signing up to some of the EU’s rules.
Labour’s pro-Europeans viewed Lammy’s speech as progress, but are frustrated that the party is unwilling to go further; it is set to rule out membership of the customs union and the single market in its election manifesto. The pro-Europeans believe the current position could be softened and had expected Starmer to phase out his pledge to “make Brexit work”, which has often been repeated by shadow ministers, and pivot to direct criticism of Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal.
“He isn’t creating the space and time is running out,” said one insider. “You can’t make this Brexit work. It doesn’t work.”
Leave-sceptics point to Labour’s first “mission for government”, which is to achieve the highest economic growth in the G7. “I don’t see how we do that without single market access in some form,” said one source.
But there is still “skittishness” in Labour about alienating Brexit voters after the party lost dozens of pro-Leave seats at the 2019 general election. Local election victories in pro-Brexit areas such as Stoke, Medway and Erewash suggest that the party has regained trust but many in Starmer’s team fear such progress is fragile.
But polls indicate that, seven years after the referendum, a growing number of people want politicians to improve the Brexit deal. A survey for the think tank UK in a Changing Europe found that just 18 per cent of Leave voters thought Brexit had gone well (though 61 per cent expected the situation to improve), while polling for the Tony Blair Institute found 78 per cent wanted Britain to have a closer relationship with the bloc and a survey by YouGov found that 58 per cent favoured rejoining the EU.
[See also: Labour is getting bolder on Brexit]
Labour’s National Policy Forum is currently trying to agree recommendations for the party’s election manifesto (which will later be amended by the party’s ruling National Executive Committee). Beyond Labour’s existing plans to support measures such as a new veterinary agreement, mutual recognition of professional qualifications and reducing red tape at borders, pro-Europeans are pushing for change.
The Labour Movement for Europe (LME) wants to amend the party’s Brexit proposals to include making single market access, as opposed to full membership, a priority for Labour’s first term in government. “For the avoidance of doubt, we are not calling for rejoin because nobody wants the division or indeed the distraction of another referendum when the cost-of-living crisis is getting worse and everything is so toxic,” said Stella Creasy, who chairs the LME.
The group believes the UK has a small window of opportunity to avoid the economic damage of hard Brexit. “Brexit was never going to be a big bang, it was always going to be a slow release of jobs, of opportunities, of sectors away from the UK,” Creasy said. “That means that even if you commit to negotiating creative visas, which Labour has talked about, unless you get that to happen very, very quickly then those in the creative sector may say, ‘That’s great, but we have set up a technical skills hub in Belgium’.”
Pro-Europeans also want automatic alignment between the UK and the EU on workers’ rights and for Starmer to commit Britain to never falling below EU standards. The LME is also pushing for Labour to support the Pan-Euro-Mediterranean Convention, a trade pact between more than 20 European, Middle Eastern and North African states. It is a form of customs union that would greatly reduce tariffs and paperwork.
Crucially, the call for better single market access is aided by the EU’s increased flexibility on access to its markets and programmes. Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, gave a speech last month saying that benefits could be extended to countries in the western Balkans to “speed up their journey” towards EU membership, given the instability triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
But the case for a closer relationship with the EU, for many in Labour, is about diplomacy as much as the economy. Senior figures point to Ireland, which celebrated 50 years of EU membership this year and has close ties with Joe Biden’s US, as enjoying a newly elevated position in European politics. They also believe that influencing potentially hostile regimes such as China via trade deals is best achieved with the UK as part of a bigger market.
Many of Starmer’s advisers err on the side of caution, however. They fear the leader could be left open to accusations from the Tories of ignoring the Leave vote or simply “flip flopping” over Labour’s position. Lammy “won’t exactly be freelancing will he”, said one shadow minister, adding that the party was approaching food rules from an economic point of view. “This is about inflation.”
Pro-Europeans within the party recognise that any team sent to negotiate with the EU cannot be comprised solely of Brexit-sceptics such as Lammy. Those at the table might include frontbenchers who represent Leave constituencies, such as Jonathan Reynolds, the shadow business secretary, or Lisa Nandy, the shadow levelling-up secretary, to balance the process.
Think tanks and pressure groups are flooding Labour’s office with ideas on how to improve UK-EU relations while remaining within the limits the leadership has imposed. Starmer, who many expect to make a significant statement on Brexit this autumn, is also being lobbied to negotiate long-term visas for the under-25s and introduce an independent trade monitoring body, described by one campaigner as an “OBR [Office for Budget Responsibility] for trade”. This would be comparable to Sweden’s National Board of Trade, a government agency that reports to the Foreign Ministry with analysis and recommendations on trade deals.
Naomi Smith, of the pro-EU Best for Britain campaign, has welcomed Starmer’s recent shift in stance but says the message from businesses is clear: the next government must “drastically reduce trade friction at the borders, or we simply can’t grow”.
Labour’s Brexit-sceptics say they are being given private assurances that the party will make significant steps towards reversing the damage of Johnson’s deal, but they remain nervous not to have heard more from Starmer himself. “We just don’t know yet if we are being led up the garden path,” said one senior pro-EU figure.
[See also: Britain’s Brexit divisions are re-emerging]