(Bloomberg) -- Labour leader Keir Starmer vowed to keep Britain out of the European Union’s single market, as he sought to win over Brexit supporters by promising the “biggest ever transfer of power” out of Westminster to the UK’s regions.
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Rejoining the single market for goods and services would create “years of uncertainty,” Starmer told BBC Radio on Monday, saying that a Labour government would instead try to improve the deal agreed by former Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
“During the Brexit referendum I argued for Remain,” Starmer said on Monday in a speech in Leeds, northern England. “But I couldn’t disagree with the basic case that lots of Leave voters made to me. They wanted more control over their lives, more control over their country.”
To achieve that, Starmer said he’ll hand new powers to devolved governments, mayors and local authorities over policy areas including transport, infrastructure, housing and development. The aim is to grow economic “clusters” across all UK regions and nations.
With a general election due in just over two years at most and the ruling Tories trailing by more than 20 points in opinion polls, Starmer is positioning Labour as a government-in-waiting, and is beginning to spell out what he intends to do in office.
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But Britain’s EU exit has long been a thorny issue for the opposition party. While many of its members want the UK to explore a renewed rapprochement with the EU, the party needs to win back swathes of its former voters who backed Leave in the 2016 referendum and turned to Johnson’s Conservatives in the 2019 general election.
At the launch of a constitutional review written by ex-Labour premier Gordon Brown, Starmer not only sought to appeal to Brexit supporters but those who backed Scottish independence in 2014. They voted that way for similar reasons, he said.
“The same frustrations at a Westminster system that seems remote,” Starmer said. “The same yearning for the chance to build a fairer future for themselves and their families.”
He also backed plans from Brown to abolish the House of Lords, replacing it with a “new, smaller, democratically elected second chamber,” and to “clean up sleaze” in Westminster including by cracking down on MPs’ second jobs.
Those proposals -- and Brown’s wider vision to devolve more powers to the regions -- will now be subject to a consultation “so they can be tested, refined and made ready for implementation,” Starmer said. Labour’s final plans will then be set out in its manifesto ahead of the next general election, he said.
The proposal to give more powers to local areas build on the efforts of former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair, who reshaped the structure of UK government by devolving powers to Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales when he became premier in 1997.
Starmer has ground to make up among Brexit supporters, having campaigned and voted for the UK to stay in the bloc. But the political landscape is shifting and the gains promised by the Tories from Brexit have yet to materialize. Polls show most Britons would now vote to stay in the EU -- though that hasn’t translated into majority calls to rejoin.
As premier, Johnson built his pitch to those voters around a pledge to “level up” disadvantaged regions of the UK, which along with his “Get Brexit Done” slogan, helped deliver a landslide general election win for the Tories in 2019.
Delivering on it has proved another matter for his Conservatives, however, as the party descended into infighting over key planks including on house building and infrastructure spending.
--With assistance from Kitty Donaldson.
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