Barry Gardiner: If this incompetent government isn’t up to the task, they should make way for one that is
We are facing the most important trade negotiation in this country’s history. Labour will ensure the jobs, livelihoods, and workplace rights of the British people are protected, writes Barry Gardiner
Yes, I do remember a time before the trade bill. I even remember last year’s party conference, when some commentators thought me overly cynical when I said the government proposals lacked transparency, democracy and accountability. Well they don’t think me overly cynical now!
The trade bill has come and gone, but we are none the wiser about the legislative framework under which the government proposes to conduct its future trade policy. The bill itself was a sorry and meagre piece of legislation that did little more than transition existing European trade agreements into UK equivalents.
It did not put in place the legislative framework to allow the UK to operate its own independent trade policy after leaving the EU, as was promised in the Queen’s Speech. Instead, it left trade policy entirely in the hands of government ministers and at the mercy of their every dogmatic whim.
Shamefully, the bill failed to set up a proper system of parliamentary scrutiny for future trade agreements and failed to give members of parliament oversight of trade policy. Those who raged against the democratic deficit of the EU have created an even bigger democratic lacuna in how trade policy will be made in the UK – that is behind closed doors, without proper consultation processes, without proper parliamentary scrutiny or a role for civil society or business.
However, we must look ahead at the challenges facing our country in the coming months. How do we maintain a strong relationship with the EU with whom we trade 44% of our exports and 53% of our imports?
The government is fond of telling us that the share of UK exports going to the EU has fallen in the last decade, and it is true – despite the fact that Liam Fox has told us so – that the IMF predicts 90% of growth in the next decade will be outside the EU. But that does not help us with our balance of trade today.
The EU is, and will continue to be, our main trading partner and our closest ally. Our economies are greatly interlinked by 40 years of integration, cross-border supply chains, and exchanges of workers, academics and students. We cannot simply cut all these ties, jump on board the Royal Yacht Britannia and sail towards an ideologically driven vision of Empire 2.0.
We also face challenges when it comes to trade with countries beyond the EU. Partners such as South Korea, Chile and Japan have already indicated they are looking to renegotiate terms. The deals that were on offer to the 500 million-strong consumer market that is the EU are not quite as good when you become the 65 million-strong market that is the UK.
Minister George Hollingbery, in a recent indiscretion to the International Trade Committee, was so honest to admit that the transition of the economic partnership agreements we currently have in place with a number of developing countries face real problems. In his evidence to the committee he said, “It is not an absolute given that we can get them all transitioned.” Greg Hands would never have been so candid!
The wider international scene is not propitious. The US has taken a Trumpian protectionist turn and appears set on unfairly attacking foreign goods and industries while undermining the rules-based system of global trade at the WTO.
Other key allies like Australia and New Zealand might be keen for a trade deal with the UK, but as big agricultural producers they are looking to gain access to our agrifood market, putting pressure on our farmers and food producers.
With emerging markets such as China, we must find ways to tackle issues of unfair competition and dumping. That needs a strong trade remedies authority – another thing the trade bill failed to achieve.
As we go back to parliament after this conference, Labour’s focus will be on the most important trade negotiation this country has ever conducted. A trade agreement for which this government had no clear negotiating strategy. A trade agreement from which its own chief negotiator, David Davis, resigned in despair. A trade agreement which has been conducted with all the finesse and acumen of a stampeding wildebeest.
We will insist that this trade agreement works to safeguard the jobs and livelihoods, the workplace rights and protections of British people. We will ensure it preserves trade, supply chains and jobs in this country. And if this incompetent government cannot conclude what they once called “the easiest trade deal in human history”, then we will demand they make way for a government that can.
Barry Gardiner is Labour MP for Brent North and shadow secretary of state for international trade