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What Labour's UK election win means for Brits in Spain

Conor Faulkner
Conor Faulkner - [email protected]
What Labour's UK election win means for Brits in Spain
Britain's Labour Party leader Keir Starmer delivers a speech during a victory rally at the Tate Modern in London early on July 5, 2024. - The UK's Labour Party swept to power after winning the country's general election, crossing the 326-seat threshold for a working majority in the House of Commons. (Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS / AFP)

The UK's new Prime Minister, Keir Starmer, was swept into Downing St. in a landslide victory overnight. How will a Labour government affect Brits in Spain? And what, if anything, will the former 'Remainer' do about Brexit while in office?

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The Labour party won a landslide victory in the UK general election on Thursday, bringing an end to 14 years of Conservative party rule.

The result has gained significant coverage in the Spanish press on Friday morning, reflecting the sense that it’s a sea change moment for British society.

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El País went with the headline: “UK ends Conservative era, gives Labour's Starmer a historic majority.” Spanish daily El Mundo reports: “Labour's 'supermajority' ushers in a new era in the UK.”

Online outlet 20 Minutos chose to highlight the longevity and unpredictability of Tory rule: “Conservative decline in the UK: Brexit, an 8-year ordeal and five leaders gives way to the Labour party.”

Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez congratulated Starmer on Twitter/X this afternoon, saying that "Spain and the UK are friends, partners and allies. We will continue to work together to tackle global challenges on the basis of our shared values."

Labour ‘supermajority’

The new Labour government enters office at a time of high political and economic uncertainty, stagnant growth, public services pushed to breaking point, and Britain’s international reputation tarnished after the Conservative government staggered from calamity to calamity in recent years.

Leading up to the election, the question was not if Labour would win but when, and how big the majority will be. In the end Labour has won one of the biggest landslides in British political history, taking 412 seats. However, in terms of vote share it won just 33.8 percent of the vote, less than when it lost in 2017 under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn.

The Conservatives polled 23.7 percent, a staggering fall from the 42.4 percent it won in 2019 under Boris Johnson, and has been reduced to 121 seats.

Smaller parties and independent candidates also had successful nights and capitalised on the general malaise and anti-Tory feeling in the country. As such, many political pundits are viewing this huge Labour victory not as an endorsement of the party or Keir Starmer, but an anti-Tory majority.

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Many will, despite having just handed the party a huge landslide victory, be wondering what exactly Labour intends to do with this power.

Writing exclusively for The Local after his party's election win, the UK's new Foreign Secretary David Lammy said Britain would reset its ties with the EU.

"As the new British Foreign Secretary, with our Prime Minister Keir Starmer, this government will reset relations with Europe as a reliable partner, a dependable ally and a good neighbour.

Lammy added: "We must do more to champion the ties between our people and our culture. Holidays, family ties, school and student exchanges, the arts, and sport (I was of course cheering on England in the Euros…). Thanks to this, our citizens benefit from the rich diversity of our continent.

"If we are to fulfil our ambitions for a reset, we must also improve Britain’s relationship with the European Union... I look forward to seeing Britain reconnect with our European neighbours in the years ahead," said Lammy.

For many Brits in Spain (as well as those in the UK), the elephant in the room in this regard is, of course, Brexit.

What the new Labour government does (or more likely, doesn’t) do with its massive majority could have big implications on life for approximately 400,000 UK nationals living in Spain.

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Sue Wilson MBE, Chair of the Bremain in Spain pressure group, told The Local that she was happy to see the back of the Conservative government that denied British citizens’ rights abroad: "Though not unexpected, we are delighted to be rid of the Tory government that caused so much economic damage, wasted so much taxpayers money and that gave us Brexit.

“They robbed British citizens in Europe of so many valued rights and benefits whilst destroying the dreams of so many in the UK that hoped to follow in our footsteps. That option is now only available to the well off,” she added.

Keir Starmer (R) in 2017, back when he was the Labour Party's Shadow Brexit Secretary. (Photo by Geoff CADDICK / AFP)

Starmer and Labour’s Brexit policy

But what, if anything, does a Labour government actually mean for Brexit and Brits in Spain?

For many, Starmer first came to national prominence in his role as Brexit secretary in the Corbyn shadow cabinet. He was then an ardent Remainer, and largely responsible for Labour’s eventual position on a second referendum, demanding that the British people deserve a “confirmatory vote” on Europe.

How things have changed. In the build-up to the election Starmer categorically ruled out the idea of rejoining the single market and the customs union, let alone a second referendum on rejoining the EU. He has, however, stated that he will take steps to ease trade barriers and sign a bolstered security agreement with Brussels.

Asked recently by the British press if he could envision Britain re-entering the EU in his lifetime, Starmer was unequivocal. “No. I don’t think that that is going to happen,” he said. “I’ve been really clear about not rejoining the EU, the single market or the customs union – or a return to freedom of movement.”

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In essence, despite his Remain-backing past, Starmer’s position seems to be that Labour can improve the Brexit deal signed by the Johnson government in January 2020, rather than tear it up or try and force the UK back into the EU on new terms.

For those hoping to rejoin the EU, this will be disappointing. Brexit became something of an internal psychodrama for the Conservative party, yet Starmer’s Labour appear to have accepted it as the political framework and don't dare to reopen the debate.

For the 400,000+ UK nationals living in Spain, this will dash dreams of potentially improving their residency rights, working and tax arrangements, and family and living situations.

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Data released by Eurostat in November 2023 showed that of a total of 858,000 Britons with the right to live in EU Member States post-Brexit, 412,000 (48 percent) reside in Spain. UK nationals make up one of Spain’s largest migrant groups.

READ ALSO: Half of UK nationals who are EU residents live in Spain

A man holds European Union and British flags during a protest against Brexit in Málaga in 2019. (Photo by JORGE GUERRERO / AFP)

Does this actually change anything for Brits in Spain?

Labour has been tight-lipped on what its Brexit policy will actually mean in practical terms, but of the few concrete proposals it has outlined so far there are plans to revamp a veterinary deal on animal products to ease on paperwork and border checks, as well as making it easier for qualifications to be recognised abroad.

Labour has also promised to enshrine rights to consular assistance for UK citizens abroad in cases of human rights violations, and to make reciprocal arrangements for touring artists and musicians moving between the UK and EU.

In terms of broad strokes commitments, however, it's hardly ambitious.

With regards to Labour’s largely non-committal approach to Brexit, Wilson of Bremain in Spain tells The Local: “As for the new government, their insistence that the single market, customs union and EU itself is off the table flies in the face of growing public opinion. Hopefully, that position is unsustainable, and it is one we will continue to challenge.”

One way that it may still become unsustainable over time is due to the economy. Starmer and his soon to be Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rachel Reeves, have bet almost their entire political platform on securing economic growth.

Getting the economy growing in order to invest, rather than increasing taxes or borrowing, has been the Labour economic message.

However, experts suggest that rejoining the single market or customs union would significantly boost the British economy, so some hold out hope that the political and economic reality may force the new Labour government to reconsider its position on Europe somewhere down the line.

Cynics of Starmer suggest that his cautious Brexit position, as with U-turns on other policy areas including the Green New Deal policy, was part of a wider campaign strategy to remain uncontroversial and win the election by default. Critics argue this is evidence of backtracking on pledges and saying whatever is necessary to win power.

For Spain's británicos, as well as millions of pro-Europeans back in the UK, they will hope this was indeed an electoral ploy rather than a hardline position, and that Starmer, now backed by a massive Commons majority, will have the confidence to rekindle some of his Remainer instincts.

96 percent of Gibraltar's population voted for the UK to remain in the EU in the 2016 referendum. (Photo by JORGE GUERRERO / AFP)

Closer UK-EU ties

However, though the prospect of a second referendum or fully rejoining the EU seems unlikely, rebuilding Britain’s relationship with the EU does seem more plausible under a Labour government.

The man expected to be the next Foreign Secretary, David Lammy, has stated that a Labour victory could symbolise a new page in UK-EU relations.

Speaking to the Foreign Press Association, Lammy said recently: “I think we are in a cycle where we have to turn the page on the rancour and some of the bitterness that we've seen in the past and move forward.

Gibraltar

One glaring aspect of this is Gibraltar. Though Boris Johnson’s landslide 2019 victory was won on the premise of getting Brexit ‘done’, in reality the deal negotiation by the Johnson government was incomplete.

Despite the referendum vote being eight years ago, and the UK officially leaving the EU four years ago, there is still no official Brexit deal for Gibraltar.

Since then, locals have lived in uncertainty, and border arrangements have essentially been fudged by Spanish authorities and proven unpredictable.

Lammy has signalled his intention to pick up negotiations where predecessor David Cameron left off. Before the election was called, Spanish press reports stated that Cameron's injection into government had improved talks. Spain’s Foreign Minister José Manuel Albares suggested significant progress was made before talks were suspended for the election campaign.

“It's a file that clearly I will pick up from David Cameron, and I look forward to doing that,” Lammy stated. “I recognise it's an outstanding issue that comes out of the Brexit arrangements, and I will pick that up.”

Many in Gibraltar will hope that a new government can refresh talks and finally bring Brexit to a conclusion after years of negotiations and uncertainty.

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