The founder of the Labour Party Keir Hardie once said of international trade that it meant "the dykes which separate man from man are broken down, and the waters of their common humanity begin to intermix and commingle". This internationalist idealism, combined with hard-headed national interest, led Clement Attlee's post-war Labour government to sign the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs, the forerunner of the World Trade Organisation. In the great depression of the 1930s, it took a Democrat President, Franklin D Roosevelt, to overturn the protectionism of his right-wing Republican predecessor, Herbert Hoover, and help drag the US out of the great depression.
There's a strong progressive tradition of support for international trade which is worth recalling today when we look at the groundbreaking EU-US trade deal currently being negotiated - the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). This would be the biggest bilateral deal in history because together the EU and US account for 30% of global trade and almost half the world's output. It's rightly getting more attention than any previous trade agreement, with critics saying it could put safety standards, public services and national sovereignty at risk.
It's plain that the UK badly needs this deal. Our economy is still 1.3% smaller than before the global financial crisis, with production 10% less, while economic growth since 2010 has been based too heavily on consumer borrowing and spending, and not enough on exports. Back in 2010, the government said that we needed an 'export-led recovery' but last year, the UK bought an eye-watering £30bn more goods than we sold.
However, if we are to build support for an EU-US deal, we must remake the progressive case for trade, and use it to hold negotiators to account. Trade agreements can be acts of transnational co-operation - setting rules and standards that govern the world-wide flow of goods and services, not merely a race to the bottom - and to ensure TTIP meets this aspiration I proposed four tests in the House of Commons this week.
First, any trade deal must deliver on jobs and growth. The most reliable estimates suggest a much-needed boost to UK GDP of £4-10bn a year, thousands of new jobs and wage gains for workers. However, we still have very little idea how the gains are likely to be spread within the UK, or any analysis of how developments in the talks will impact on jobs and growth. If the government want widespread support then they need to put the facts on the table.
Second, negotiations must be transparent and accountable to those they will affect. For the first time, this can't be a traditional backroom trade deal done by the elites in Brussels and Washington. The European Commission are right to say these are the most transparent trade talks ever but the bar set by previous negotiations is very low indeed. Mistrust is rife and both the European Commission and our own UK government can do more to open up the debate.
Third, any deal must aim for the highest possible consumer, labour and environmental standards. Given that most of the trade barriers between the EU and the US are regulatory barriers, maintaining high standards will be a central test for negotiators. EU Commissioner De Gucht last week said: "No standard in Europe will be lowered because of this trade deal; not on food, environment, social protection or data protection". It's up to campaigners and Parliamentarians to hold them to that promise.
Fourth, an EU-US deal must allow sufficient leeway for national governments to act in their national interests. No trade deal must put at risk the vital interest that governments have in legislating for the public benefit. The European Commission's statement in December that "TTIP should explicitly state that legitimate government public policy decisions cannot be over-ridden..." is welcome, but not enough. Exempting the NHS from any deal, and removing the presumption in favour special protection for multinational investors would speak louder than words about the Commission's respect for national sovereignty. It would also settle concerns that currently distract from a more balanced debate and risk diverting support for an ambitious deal.
TTIP could be a global economic gamechanger - bringing more jobs, higher wages and setting global standards for a generation. I want to see progressives follow in the footsteps of Hardie, Attlee and Roosevelt by leading the case for trade that is both free and fair.Suggest a correction