Defending the party’s decision to support the government in the article 50 vote, Starmer said mimicking the Liberal Democrats’ attempts to frustrate the exit from the EU would simply leave Labour unable to represent those who voted for Brexit.
“Labour needs to be leading that battle,” Starmer said, speaking at Bloomberg’s HQ in central London. Standing back was not an option, he argued, saying: “This is real opposition in real time. By 2020, we will be living in a different world.”
Starmer said Labour was not writing a “blank cheque” for the government over the departure process, and would seek to amend any parliamentary bill on enacting article 50 if needed.
He castigated both the government and Liberal Democrats for not seeking to represent all sides of Brexit opinion. The Conservatives, he said, had overseen a “double dereliction of duty” – first, by not planning for Brexit, and then, under Theresa May, choosing to “set aside the national interest once again by serving the interests of just one side of the divide”.
“Extrapolating the view of a group within the 52%, who were seriously concerned about freedom of movement and immigration, the prime minister has issued a loud and clear warning that control over immigration will be prioritised over jobs, the economy and living standards,” he said.
Also dismissing Ukip as seeking “the hardest of hard Brexits”, Starmer said the Lib Dems’ sole Brexit strategy was to “hold out the false promise to the 48% of being able to frustrate the process”.
“First, as a matter of principle, no serious political party can claim to accept and respect the outcome of the referendum and in the next breath say that it will seek to prevent the prime minister from even starting the article 50 negotiations,” he said in the speech.
“Second, any political party with an ambition simply to frustrate the process cannot unify or heal the country.”
Setting Labour against a so-called hard Brexit, Starmer said this would result in “a global race to the bottom, which would not only put our economy and jobs at risk, but which would also abandon our shared scientific, educational and cultural endeavours with the EU”.
Labour would seek some sort of tariff-free access to EU markets, as well as changes to freedom of movement “based on fair migration rules and the reasonable management of migration”.
Starmer also praised Philip Hammond for raising the idea of a transitional deal with the EU post-Brexit, calling the chancellor’s comments “helpful”. Starmer said the UK faced having to negotiate both on article 50 and the terms of any future EU relationship in a timespan of less than two years.
“Most sensible observers think that it is impossible to complete both sets of negotiations within the timeframe available,” he said.
Answering questions after the speech, Starmer said he could not specify what “reasonable” controls on immigration might mean practically, in part as it also involved addressing shortages of skilled UK workers.
“The direction of travel needs to be downwards, as I have said, but I don’t think setting arbitrary targets is the way forwards,” he said.
Asked about divisions over immigration and Brexit within Labour, Starmer insisted this actually came from a strength, caused in part by the party’s MPs representing areas with very different views on Brexit.
“That is the makeup of the Labour party,” he said. “That is nothing to do with the leader of the Labour party, and it’s certainly not a left/right split. It is fact of life of a party which is capable of reaching both sides. Of course, that does make life difficult in some respects. I accept that. But it’s also a huge strength.
“If you want a party that’s capable of bringing the country together, you need it.”
Responding to the speech the Liberal Democrat leader, Tim Farron, said Starmer’s position had “become indistinguishable from Theresa May’s”.
He said: “Labour and the Tories are now holding hands on the path to Brexit. Only the Liberal Democrats are providing a real opposition to the Conservative Brexit government and striving to keep Britain open, tolerant and united.”