Cameron’s EU referendum was designed to defeat Ukip and the far right of his own party, and re-establish his camp of modernisers as dominant. But it backfired. The narrow referendum majority for Leave 18 months ago has brought an uncertainty over where we are headed.
Post-Brexit, UK governments will be expected to fulfill promises made during the referendum campaign. Immigration was a major reason for the result, but at least half of immigrants to the UK every year — those from South Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean — are unaffected by EU laws. It would also be difficult to reduce the number of EU citizens in the UK unless there is a (very misguided) programme to expel them, and the UK is prepared to countenance similar expulsions of its own citizens from the continent.
Many British voters also believed that by favouring Brexit they were voting for greater spending on the National Health Service and the rest of the British welfare state. Those voters will become even more dissatisfied when they discover that Brexit will not, in fact, provide anything close to the additional £350 million per week for our NHS that was claimed.
I accept the referendum result. The current political scenario provides a chance for us as a party to take control of how Brexit can be implemented in the national interest.
I strongly believe it is in our best interests to reach an agreement over the rights of EU citizens currently living in the UK – and UK citizens living in Europe – which includes continued recognition of professional qualifications, at the earliest opportunity.
For certain sectors which are heavily reliant on labour from the European Economic Area — construction (within which I have worked for two decades) and care are good examples — a hard line would have an extremely negative impact. Across the UK, EEA immigrants make up 10 per cent of registered doctors and 4 per cent of registered nurses, but that number is falling dramatically. The number of EU nationals registering as nurses in England has dropped by 92 per cent since the referendum, and a record number are quitting. A slowdown in EU migrants looking for work in the UK poses serious problems for our economy.
Britain’s exit from the EU must not imperil our pre-eminent position as a magnet for the finest talent from around the world. It is important that we work with businesses to ensure they remain within our country, and identify specific labour and skills shortages. For example, my county, Berkshire, has the highest concentration of foreign-owned companies among the 38 local enterprise partnerships areas.
It is also vital our trade agreement with the EU does not prevent economic growth, jobs and prosperity that comes with exporting our goods. Large businesses in my Slough constituency such as the confectionary producer Mars, have sites and factories that are interconnected across Europe, making up an integrated network in which raw materials are moved across borders and finished products made in one country are packaged, distributed and sold in others. Representatives of Mars are concerned over the return of barriers to the supply chain, and the possible impact on jobs. They told me:
“It is a fact that Europe after Brexit will remain a critical market for UK exports and likewise the UK will remain an important market for goods produced and manufactured in other European states. There can be no economic advantage either side restricting trade with a large market situated on its doorstep. In simple terms, if the UK and the EU fail to agree on a new preferential deal, it will be to the detriment of all.”
As the UN sustainable development goals make clear, international trade has an important role in sustainable development. The UK purchases a large amount from developing countries, on a basis largely governed by EU agreements. A future Labour government should guarantee to the least developed countries continued access to the UK market in the wake of Brexit. I therefore welcome the current government’s pledge to ensure these countries continue to have market access at the same level that they currently enjoy with the EU.
However, I believe the government must go further and make clear how it will ensure sustainable development remains a guiding principle of our trade policy. The government also needs to set out how it will extend preferential access to the UK market for developing countries currently covered by the EU’s wider generalised system of preferences. This could include establishing bespoke, non-reciprocal, tariff-free market access schemes for economically vulnerable countries immediately after Brexit.
More widely, I believe we need to make trade more inclusive to ensure its benefits are shared equitably between developed and developing countries. I will continue to support trade deals that are based on just relationships and shared values, and that will develop markets and raise income and standards in developing countries.