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With No Opposition, Johnson is Getting On with Pursuing his Economic Hardship

The new Labour Leader must take apart the Government’s claim to be ‘levelling up’ the UK while its Brexit policy, austerity and council cuts make reaching that goal impossible, argues Mike Buckley.

With No Opposition, Johnson is Getting On with Pursuing his Economic Hardship

The new Labour Leader must take apart the Government’s claim to be ‘levelling up’ the UK while its Brexit policy, austerity and council cuts make reaching that goal impossible, argues Mike Buckley.

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Under a hard Brexit, the poorest will suffer most – but with the Labour Party embroiled in a leadership contest, the Government faces no serious opposition.

UK politics in February 2020 is in a state of suspended animation. The Brexit wars are over, for now. There will be no second referendum, no government of national unity, and no further rebellion over a ‘no deal’, the backstop or a customs union. Whereas before there was noise, now there is calm.

The Labour Party’s leadership election has been notable for its lack of fire and, at least for the leadership candidates, them gathering around familiar policies rather than striking out and covering new ground. 

The Government hasn’t exactly done much but, so far, the public are giving it the benefit of the doubt. In mid-February, YouGov gave the Conservatives a 20-point lead over Labour – understandable given the lack of opposition, but terrifying for a party that even now sees four years as a short time frame to turn things round before the next general election. 

The question that we still don’t have an answer to is what sort of Government the country elected in December. We know that the country decided not to elect Jeremy Corbyn and that, due to the first-past-the-post electoral system, a split but majority, Remain vote managed to elect a hard Brexit Government. However, we don’t yet know what form that Government will take. The best indications are the few signals given by Boris Johnson’s administration and its actions over the Brexit negotiations. 

Johnson’s aspiration is to be a ‘Brexity Hezza’, referring to the interventionist Michael Heseltine who regenerated poorer regions in the 1980s and 1990s. But this aspiration is belied by the stance his Government is taking over Brexit.

To be in a position to regenerate the poorer regions of the UK – which are nine of the 10 of the poorest regions in northern Europe – the Government would need to prioritise the economy in the Brexit negotiations. Its actions however are the exact opposite. The EU has published draft negotiating guidelines that clearly aim for close economic and security ties and which envisage a level playing field in labour and environmental standards and a shared governance framework, to underpin and oversee these mechanisms. But the UK chooses to portray the EU as a federalist aggressor, an enemy to be defeated and an overbearing regulatory behemoth to be free of. 

The constant in the Johnson Government’s attitude to the negotiations is that it sees the whole point of Brexit as regulatory divergence, whatever the cost. It wants the right to be able to set labour standards, environmental standards in food, air quality and environmental protection, and product standards, on its own. This prioritisation of sovereignty over the economy – because this route will lead to maximum disruption and economic damage – is one possible reading of the Brexit vote, but it is not the act of a Government that is serious about ‘levelling up’ the UK or redressing regional inequalities. 

We know from countless studies, including one by the Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion, that poorer regions will lose out most from Brexit. This is exacerbated by the hardness of the Brexit deal we end up with and, given that Johnson is aiming either for a free trade agreement (what used to be called a hard Brexit) or ‘no deal’ (what used to be called economic catastrophe), we know that the poorer regions of the UK face an incredibly hard future. 

The hardest hit industries will be clothing and textiles, transport equipment (including car manufacturing), chemicals and pharmaceuticals and finance. Men are more likely to be employed in these industries than women, and men with few formal qualifications most of all. History suggests that these workers may struggle to find equally well-paid work if their current employment was to disappear. Further loss may come from lost trading relationships with countries other than the EU, given that all of the UK’s current trading relationships are dependent on our EU membership and will soon lapse. 

There is no silver lining for low educated workers with the end of free movement. The Migration Advisory Committee found that migrants have had little or no impact on the employment and unemployment outcomes of the UK-born workforce. Due to the fact that migrants generate employment as well as take up jobs, migration in fact boosts overall employment more or less one-for-one. Living standards will also suffer, with the poorest losing out most due to price rises on goods facing import tariffs and other barriers. 

None of this is inevitable. All of it is Government choice. At the moment we have a Government that, on the one hand says it wants to transform poorer regions and pour in investment where it has been lacking, but on the other is pursuing exactly the kind of Brexit that will make that impossible. To add to the sense that the deeds will not match the words, the Marmot Review has indicated that increasing health inequality is a direct result of 10 years of austerity – which the new Government has not ended, with council cuts continuing, including in ‘Red Wall’ areas. The Government has still not committed to replace the EU’s structural investment funds, which were targeted at poorer regions, despite the increased damage that this will do to regional inequality. 

The new Labour Leader must take apart the Government’s claim to be ‘levelling up’ the UK while its Brexit policy, austerity and council cuts make reaching that goal impossible. The danger for the party is that it lets Brexit go – buying the lie that voters want to move on, when in fact most voters in December voted for parties that backed a second referendum and the vast majority of Labour voters were and are Remainers.

If it does so, it will fatally wound its ability to attack the Conservatives on their record, which has already increased income and health inequality and which will do far more damage over coming years if their hard Brexit rhetoric becomes a reality. 

Mike Buckley is the director of Labour for a Public Vote. He tweets at @mdbuckley.

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