Keir Starmer: ‘The public should have the option to remain’

Shadow Brexit secretary tells UNISON that the option to remain in the EU should be part of any second referendum

Labour’s shadow Brexit minister Keir Starmer today told UNISON national conference delegates that he expected the party’s leadership to state “very soon” its intention to campaign for remain should there be a referendum on a Brexit deal.

The party leadership earlier this week declared its belief that the public should have the final say on whatever future agreement the Tory government secures with Brussels on the UK’s exit from Europe – or ‘no deal’ if that is what’s offered.

On that, Mr Starmer told a fringe meeting in Liverpool that the country was faced with a likely new prime minister, in Boris Johnson, for whom a hard Brexit – “bad for trade, bad for public services, bad for workplace rights” – was a best case scenario and, failing that, would accept a no-deal Brexit, “which is even worse.”

That’s why, he said, “Whatever the next Prime Minister puts forward, it’s got to have the consent of the public… Or to remain.

“We need that lock, that safeguard. We can’t proceed any further unless the public says it’s alright.”

When pressed by Labour MEP Judith Kirton-Darling, and a UNISON member from the floor, Mr Starmer then went further.

“I think we will very soon say openly that we want to campaign for remain. But I want to do it as one.”

The leadership was currently in discussions with, among others, trade unions.

Either way, he added that a referendum alone would not “settle” the Brexit question.

“If we are going to go to a second referendum, it can only be done by making a very bold offer to the country at large of how we are genuinely going to transform the lives of those millions of people – who voted to leave but also to remain – for whom the status quo is not working.”

Ms Kirton-Darling said that the bullish declarations by Tory leadership candidates of being tough in their EU negotiations were misguided.

“Negotiation are based on good faith and trust. We have already done a good job of undermining both of those things,” she said, urging her party “to make a radical case for remaining in the EU.”

James Anthony of UNISON’s policy committee said that any campaigning direction taken by the union would, as ever, be put to the membership.

The danger to the economy, workers’ rights and the Northern Ireland peace process were all front and centre of a busy morning of Brexit debate in Liverpool.

Delegates voted for a motion reaffirming the union’s “six tests” for any Brexit deal, regarding health and safety; protecting public services from a bad economic deal that will prevent growth of the UK economy; keeping public services out of global trade deals; safeguarding employment rights; maintaining existing equality and human rights; and preventing a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland and upholding the Good Friday Agreement.

Roz Norman of the East Midlands said of the dangers inherent in trade deals with the US, had a message for Donald Trump: “Our NHS is not for sale. Keep your dirty hands off it.”

Ms Norman added: “For UNISON, protecting public services and workers is at the forefront of an EU exit. But we’re well aware that the Tories have no regard for these things. We need to keep it at the top of the agenda at all times.”

The motion states that the government itself now admits that any type of Brexit deal will make the country poorer, with its own impact assessments predicting that economic growth will be lower over the next 15 years.

And there remains grave concern at the cost for public services. A recent report predicted that by the end of the Brexit transition period the NHS could be short of 51,000 nurses – enough to staff 45 hospitals.

Said Ms Norman: “That’s an absolute disgrace”.

The motion was passed. But among the speakers against it, Antonia Bright of SOAS said: “At the end of the day we need to talk about stopping Brexit. Young people are vastly against Brexit. It’s their future more than anyone’s and they need to know, what did we do to stop it?”

During a debate on the effects of Brexit on the Northern Ireland peace process, many spoke passionately of their fear of returning to the violence of The Troubles, should there be a return of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

Gabrielle Carton of Northern Ireland region said: “This isn’t just about goods, tariffs and trade, it’s about people and peace.

“Make no mistake, the enemies of peace are waiting in the wings to attack any kind of border infrastructure.

“If the UK is leaving the EU the only way to protect our peace process is to keep an open border on the island of Ireland and to protect our rights in the backstop.”

Former UNISON president Margaret McKee told delegates that the contenders in the Tory leadership election “don’t understand the unique and complex issues at stake. Or they don’t care.”

She said that UNISON members still suffered from sectarianism in their workplaces.

“Brexit risks not just putting back physical borders but deepening the divide of two communities never properly reconciled…To weaken the backstop would be an unforgivable act against the people of Northern Ireland, who have suffered enough.”

Connor Morrison said he was born in 1969, the year The Troubles started, and remembered gun fire, explosions, and being searched on the way to the shops as a regular part of his childhood.

“The Good Friday Agreement was not the final step towards lasting peace but a fundamental step on which all other steps will be made,” he said. “If we allow a hard Brexit to remove that, my 11-year-old son is going to think that gunfire and explosions and soldiers on the streets is normal. I don’t want that for him.”