MP Barry Gardiner straightens out Labour’s Brexit policy

Lewis Thomas 22 November 2017
Image Credit: Chris McAndrew

Barry Gardiner has the air of a vicar who found themselves in politics (which, as a man who once had ambitions to join the Clergy, is precisely what he is). Talking to him, I’m struck by his manner- he lacks the pained, artificial jocularity of McDonnell or the wide-eyed zeal of Corbyn, instead exuding a degree of consideration and reasoned calm.

He is a man who thinks over his words. He also has the in-tray from Hell.

In addition to his duties as Shadow International Trade Secretary, he has also become something of a surrogate for Jeremy Corbyn in the media, regularly trotting out to Newsnight and the Daily Politics to explain Labour’s stance. In spite of this, he managed to find time to sit down with TCS before addressing the Marshall Society, to talk about Labour’s future; the subtleties of Brexit; and the underpinnings of Labour’s Brexit policy.

Asked about Labour’s path to power, he is blunt- “All you can do at this stage in a parliament is make sure that you are trying to constrain the government from making what you believe to be errors, mitigating the damage- particularly with Brexit- and presenting a case about what the real needs of the country are… Our job is not about getting power- our job is to serve people.”

On how to provide this service, “the best way that you can serve people is if you are in government, because then you can change the legislation and effect people’s lives to a far greater extent. At the moment, we have the possibility of four and a half years of this government.” To Gardiner’s mind, this possibility is real- “it seems to me that we must anticipate that the next General election will be that far away [in 2022].” However, this is not to say that Labour are not on an election footing- “I am an optimist, and I am acutely aware of the chaos that the Conservative party is currently in. I believe we must be ready to form a government at any point, but not necessarily anticipating that it will be next week.”

If- when- Labour gets into power, their policy will be shaped by “what we inherit. Are we going to be in a position where we’ve come to the end of a transitional phase, where we have a final free trade agreement worked out by the Conservative Party with Europe, or are we going to find- if the election comes more quickly than that- that we still have a role to play in the final negotiation of the deal? So it’s very difficult to say ‘what Labour would do’ if we came into government, because it depends on what when we come into government and what we find is already in place.” With this statement, Gardiner seems to argue that Labour’s policy is more pragmatic than ideological- they have aspirations about what to do in government, but recognize that will be shaped by circumstance.

Labour is a party divided on Brexit. “The government- for its own internal reasons as a political party- called Brexit. We are now seeing the playing out of this psychodrama that is the conservative party breaking itself apart over Europe. The referendum told us that our country was divided over whether we should be in or out of Europe. I campaigned to Remain. I believe that Britain would be better off staying in Europe. But I am also a democrat. I recognize, like most politicians, that we were very clear to people that they were going to determine whether or not we left the European Union. Therefore, I have to be humble enough to say “I lost! I lost the argument- I lost the vote.” That means I now have to accommodate to the wish of the British people.”

However, this deference to the Referendum result should not be mistaken for an abdication of opinions- “The question is how we go about leaving. Look at what is driving the different approaches to Brexit.”

The Conservative approach is driven by “their immigration policy. They have made it very clear that they believe- probably correctly- that many people voted as they did in the Referendum because they believed that there should be greater controls on immigration. For the Conservatives, it is vital that the four freedoms [free movement of goods, capital, workers, and services] do not apply. That means we can’t then stay as part of the EEA, because if you were part of the EEA the four freedoms would apply. And if you’re not part of the EEA, then the consequences for our trade are extremely serious. It’s not about tariffs, it’s not about being part of the customs union, it’s about regulation.”

At this point, Gardiner clarifies the role of the EEA- “The EEA is about standards, certification, the mutual recognition of standards and the application of various regulations and protections. For them, the logic of their position is that they abjure the four freedoms, and that has implications for our trade and our economy that could be devastating.” By leaving the EEA, the argument runs, Britain is leaving a regulatory framework which has huge economic implications.

For Labour, the position is “not one which says ‘immigration is a bad thing’. We believe that every wave of immigration that there has been in this country has been a net positive for the economy. This is borne out by all the economic studies that have been done… we don’t see free movement as a problem. What we see as a problem is the way that government has allowed employers to use foreign labour on black market terms to undercut British labour. The problem is the lack of the controls in ensuring that people are paid minimum wage. These are the things that mean there are people in the UK who are concerned about controls on immigration. They are fundamentally the unsettling economics of what is happening here.”

“For us, it’s about ensuring that we have the skills that we need so that our health service- 1 in 5 people in our health service are from outside the UK- does not fall apart. That’s why we said we would, on day one of any negotiations, say that ‘All EU citizens living in the UK will have their rights protected’, and we would look for the EU to do a reciprocal arrangement, but we would unilaterally do that.” The justification for this is twofold, and highlights the two prongs of Gardiner’s view- “because it’s in our economic interest, yes, but also because it’s the right thing to do. These are people who’ve come here, made their lives here, and are contributing to our economy.”

To Gardiner, any Brexit deal has to be both in Britain’s interests and morally sound. This twin foundation of pragmatism and morality comes out through the interview- this is a man who would like to be in government to exert an influence, but realizes that he must try and do so from opposition. A man who has based his Brexit policy not on revolution, but on conservation and adjustment. A man who seeks to make policy not necessarily because it will make a good headline, but because “It’s the right thing to do.”

Pragmatism underpinned by morality. It seems that the demands of politics have yet to erode the principles of the Vicar of Brent North.