Brexit, financial services and rethinking transport strategy at the Labour party conference fringe 2019

Robert Pettigrew shares his observations on a series of fringe meetings and policy roundtable discussions from the Labour party conference in Brighton.

It was never likely that Brexit would not feature prominently within the conference hall and on fringe at the Labour party’s annual conference in Brighton this week. Yet an early morning fringe meeting — ostensibly a gathering organised by the Society of Labour Lawyers with a nominated theme of Brexit and financial services — was packed out some time before the discussion was scheduled to start.

The panel, which comprised the Chair of the House of Commons’ Exiting the EU Select Committee (Hilary Benn), the shadow Economic Secretary to the Treasury (Jonathan Reynolds), a Member of the European Parliament, the Vice-President of the Law Society and one of the party’s economic policy advisers, discussed the state of the Brexit process and the importance of satisfactory arrangements for this part of the economy after the UK’s departure from the EU.

We were told that UK financial services are the third most reliant sector on the European Union — and panellists considered that it was a clear failure of Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement that no provisions were included. The risk posed by Brexit to UK financial services were similar to those of a ‘slow puncture’ (rather than the much-fabled cliff-edge); no-deal would be likely to deprive us of good will, we were told. Flaws in some of the statutory instruments which have been passed to deal with Brexit were described.

 At a lunchtime roundtable, chaired by Professor David Begg and addressed by the shadow Transport Secretary, Andy McDonald MP, the policy priorities for rethinking rail delivery was discussed. The Chair reflected on debates from twenty years ago — when I was working at the Strategic Rail Authority, on which he served on the Board — and the parallels in the debates which are now taking place.

Speculation about what the conclusions of the ongoing Williams Review as well as  the work being undertaken by Professor Phil Goodwin at the Labour frontbench team’s request, might imply, the roundtable also considered addressing the collapse in public and political confidence in the rail sector; how approaches to major infrastructure projects could be improved; and, more fundamentally, how price signals between different modes of transport should be re-calibrated to achieve expressed policy objectives. Re-framing the arguments (for example, in terms of sustainability) should gain greater traction and improve public confidence.

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