As a general election looms, Labour continues to look quite frankly petrified about addressing Brexit in any kind of meaningful way.

You would imagine it might have done its homework on voters’ likely reactions if it were to look at doing something sensible on this front, and then have decided not to do so. However, it is difficult to tell if it has or not. Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer seems utterly determined these days to paint a picture that Brexit, with the enormous damage from losing frictionless trade with the UK’s biggest trading partner and ending free movement of people between Britain and the European Economic Area, is actually no big deal.

And, for anyone who might harbour hopes Labour would rebuild relationships with the European Union in a way that leads to meaningful mitigation of the hard Brexit damage if it were to win the election, the UK in a Changing Europe (UKICE) think-tank’s latest “tracker” makes for grim reading.

Of course, there is no clear sign Labour is that interested on this front in any case. Sir Keir, who argued so vociferously against Brexit in late 2019, has now embraced it.

It was interesting to see that Brexit and the crucial European issue did not feature in the Progressive Britain conference agenda last weekend.

Progressive Britain describes itself as “the new platform for policymaking, political education, and imaginative thinking to rebuild Labour and the nation”.

It adds: “Rooted in the Labour Party, we are dedicated to national renewal through the intellectual revitalisation of the UK centre-left. Key to this is our re-dedication as a think-tank – and our ongoing work bringing politicians, policymakers, experts, and activists together to shape Labour’s next winning policy platform.”

Okay, so that is the sales pitch.

So what is it doing and thinking about specifically?

Progressive Britain declares of its work: “After more than a decade of Tory rule, the UK is suffering from sluggish growth, failing infrastructure, low self-confidence – and the regional and social divisions they create. 2020s Britain requires a period of economic, social and political reconstruction.”

So far, this makes sense. But what are the priorities?

The think-tank says: “So we’re focusing on the big things – our work covers all aspects of Labour policy, strategy and narrative to support the party to develop distinctive, dynamic and popular positions and messages in the run up to the next general [election].”

The “big things”, seemingly, do not include Brexit, and that is somewhat jaw-dropping.

The loss of economic output, and consequent diminution of living standards arising from Brexit is huge.

Forecasts drawn up by Theresa May’s government in 2018 showed Brexit would, with an average free trade deal with the EU, result in UK gross domestic product in 15 years’ time being 4.9% lower than if the country had stayed in the bloc if there were no change to migration arrangements. Or 6.7% worse on the basis of zero net inflow of workers from EEA countries. The Tories have imposed a major clampdown on immigration from the EEA.

Office for Budget Responsibility chairman Richard Hughes said in spring last year of Brexit’s effect: “We think that in the long run it reduces our overall output by around 4% compared with had we remained in the EU.”

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Centre for European Reform associate fellow John Springford estimates Brexit had by the second quarter of 2022 reduced UK GDP by 5.5%.

So why is the dire effect of the Tory hard Brexit not a “big thing” in the context of Labour’s plans for the future? Surely Labour would wish to mitigate the grim effect of Brexit on the UK population, given the party is making such a big deal about living standards.

Then again, Progressive Britain does mention “popular positions and messages”. Such positions and messages were surely the focus of former prime minister Boris Johnson ahead of his 2019 general election victory.

Returning to UKICE, the think-tank declared as it published its latest UK-EU relations tracker last week: “With elections on both sides of the Channel, the debate is starting to focus on what might happen afterwards. The Labour Party has set out further details on how it sees its foreign policy relationship with the EU. And the European Commission published a proposal for a youth mobility scheme with the UK which will now be discussed by member states.”

Getting to the crux of the matter in terms of what might or might not happen next, UKICE added: “Whilst both sides are thinking about areas for closer cooperation, their respective reactions to each other’s proposals have been lukewarm at best. Some of these could soften post-elections. But with red lines mostly unchanged, and trust still repairing, forging a closer relationship will not be straightforward.”

Labour’s “red lines”, of course, remain that it will not take the UK back into the single market or even the customs union if it wins the election.

UKICE meanwhile observed that the European Commission’s youth mobility scheme proposal was swiftly rejected not only by the Conservatives but also by Labour.

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Jannike Wachowiak, researcher at UKICE said: "Labour’s rebuff of the commission’s youth mobility scheme, and the timing of the proposal, should be a salutary warning for those hoping for quick deals with the EU under a Labour government. Brexit reflexes and low levels of trust can still act as a brake to closer relations, even in areas of mutual interest."

The youth mobility proposal seemed eminently sensible, and at the very least provided a very good starting point for debate. Not so for Labour or the Tories though, it seems, who at times seem equally hidebound by Brexit ideology.

UKICE noted: “There has been much talk about the need to improve on the mobility provisions of the TCA (Trade and Cooperation Agreement). The European Commission recently proposed the opening of negotiations on a UK-EU youth mobility scheme. The proposals would enable EU and UK citizens aged between 18 and 30 to spend up to four years in the UK or an EU member state. Young people would still require a visa, but fees should not be ‘excessive’. The healthcare surcharge to use the NHS would not apply. And the commission proposal envisages that EU students would be charged home fees (rather than the much higher overseas fees).”

The think-tank added: “The commission proposal is yet to be discussed by member states. However, the proposal was immediately rejected by both Labour and Conservatives. The Government previously expressed a preference for bilateral deals over an EU-wide one, and has approached at least a handful of member states. The Labour Party said it considered the offer as ‘synonymous with freedom of movement’, and therefore rebuffed it.”

The outright rejection of the youth mobility proposal by Labour and the Conservatives is utterly demoralising. And there would have been a time not so long ago when you would have expected better from Labour.

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Brexit has hammered opportunities for young people, particularly in the UK.

UKICE said: “Labour wants to leave no doubt that it is serious about its red lines - no single market, no customs union, and no freedom of movement. The timing of the commission placed the party in an invidious position so close to an election. It suggests that the commission wanted to stymie attempts by the UK to negotiate bilateral deals with individual member states and to ensure the issue was addressed in an ‘EU-wide manner’.”

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Sadly, Labour continues to appear utterly terrified of its shadow on Brexit, as it looks to those red-wall voters who switched to the Conservatives in the 2019 election to get it into power.

And UKICE is absolutely right to characterise Labour’s rejection of the youth mobility scheme as a “salutary warning” to anyone hoping for quick deals with the EU if Sir Keir wins the election.