There may be very little opportunity to do so at the Labour conference, but Remainers have to challenge Keir Starmer if they want meaningful change.
Starmer heads to Liverpool after finishing his European tour. It started with talk of a solution to the small boats crisis at Europol headquarters at The Hague, followed by warm words about a “progressive moment” at a meeting with Justin Trudeau in Montreal.
Then we had the grand finale: a 45-minute summit with President Emmanuel Macron at the Élysée Palace. It was a PR coup for the leader of the opposition to get the statesman treatment, but the substance of these meetings is still lacking.
Yes, there’s talk of a renegotiation of the Brexit deal in 2025, but little detail on what this will mean. Starmer has made the tentative case for a returns policy to help solve the small boats crisis, but the emphasis was on law and order.
“My Labour government will be twice as ruthless to smash the gangs and secure British borders,” Starmer told The Times recently. “These criminal smuggling gangs are growing fat on the government’s failures, while the Tories ramp up empty rhetoric around illegal immigration for cheap headlines.
“The government’s failure to tackle the criminal smuggling gangs orchestrating boat crossings is now so profound that I believe it needs to be considered on par with the three big security threats we face: climate change, hostile foreign powers and terrorism.”
Conveniently forgetting his past support for freedom of movement, Starmer has even called those who want more open borders “un-British”. This messaging was no doubt focus-grouped to satisfy a certain section of the electorate.
The tough rhetoric was supposed to provide cover for the prospect of a returns deal with the EU (itself a policy briefly favoured by Rishi Sunak). Nevertheless, Labour faces the accusation it would open the floodgates to waves of immigrants.
Even though net migration has already reached an all-time high, the Tories still want to pose as the party of strong border controls. They may hope they can use the spectacle of small boats crossing the channel to win the next election.
Meanwhile, the Labour leader has shown he will make changes if he thinks he has to, but most of the pressure is coming from the anti-immigrant right. This is where the true danger lies.
Starmer could have been a soft-left Labour leader going by his 10 pledges, but he has chosen another route of triangulation. He is much more likely to compromise with the new nationalism because he thinks he can win over right-wing voters on this basis.
If Remainers want Starmer to listen to them, they will need to turn up the pressure on the Labour Party. The real fight will begin after the 2024 general election when Starmer is likely to lead the next government.
After the failure of the People’s Vote Campaign, Remainers need a new campaign to challenge the next government on the post-Brexit settlement. Labour has made it clear it will not back rejoining the EU, but the possibility of changing the terms of separation is more likely.
The People’s Vote Campaign helped define the Corbyn years with the narrative that the Labour leader was a Eurosceptic, while Starmer was held up as a great Remainer. At the time, Labour’s strategy was mired in division and infighting.
Starmer’s call for rewriting the hard Brexit deal now sounds a lot like what Jeremy Corbyn advocated. We may end up with some kind of revised agreement, where the UK retains more EU rules for the sake of greater concessions on trade.
Even though Starmer has ruled out rejoining the customs union or the single market, the next government will likely have to consider these options to make any serious gains in talks with the European Commission (assuming the EU will be open to such an offer).
Many Remainers had high hopes for Starmer in 2020, but those hopes have been dashed. As Labour leader, Starmer has backed the Tory hard Brexit deal and now supports the points-based immigration system.
It’s now clear that Starmer used the campaign to strengthen his position within Labour and recapture the leadership for the right of the party. Once in power in the Labour Party, Starmer quickly dropped the Remain rhetoric (along with a lot of other things).
By this point, the People’s Vote Campaign had been wound up amidst the devastation of the 2019 election. It showed how such a campaign can shift Labour policy, but the party was crushed at the ballot box.
Arguably, the campaign did more to undermine Corbyn than stop the Tories at a time of national crisis. However, a similar campaign or movement may not run the same risk next year because the Conservatives are so far behind in the polls.
The Labour Party is stronger in the polls than ever before but Starmer is either absent on most policy issues or taking ‘safe’ positions favoured by the Tory press. He has only just stuck his neck out on the returns policy and could easily abandon the idea.
More than ever, the UK needs a movement to defend migrant rights and oppose the hostile environment. This isn’t just about the travel rights of British and EU nationals. It’s about preventing any more deaths in the English Channel.
An EU-wide deal on returns and the creation of safe routes should be the start of reform, but not the end. What we need is a mass movement to campaign for freedom of movement because waiting for Labour is not going to work.
Next year the Labour Party will still face an electoral base split between big-city Remainers and small-town Leavers. Right now, Starmer is placing his bets on Labour’s core voters turning out for the party no matter what.
This is the Mandelson theory of UK politics: most of Labour’s core base have nowhere to run, so focus on winning over Conservative voters. This strategy could cost Labour dearly long-term, but it could cost the country much more.
A Labour government with little grasp of what the public wants could squander its time in office. Starmer could just preside over a stopgap government between two Conservative administrations.
The best hope for progressives may be a weak Labour government which can be pressured by campaigners to make real changes. Starmer will not change tack unless challenged head-on by the voters he takes for granted.
Josh White is the author of Goodbye United Kingdom: Descent into Chaos (2015-2022) published by The Battleground.