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Thu 9 July 2020
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Mike Buckley argues that the new Labour leadership must stand up to the economic destruction proposed by the Conservative Brexiters.

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Labour became a pro-European party for a good reason. It was formed to represent the interests of working people and their communities. In 1988, first the unions, then the party itself, recognised that the best interests of working people, their families and communities would be best met through the UK’s full membership of, and participation in, the single market and the forerunner of the EU, the European Economic Community (EEC). 

The defining moment was the speech made by the then President of the European Commission, Jacques Delors, at the Trades Union Congress in 1988. Delors explicitly sought the support of British unions for the social chapter and, by extension, the single market itself. He argued that trade unions should regard the completion of the single market as an opportunity to give the EEC a social dimension, rather than as a threat to members’ jobs and conditions. 

Delors’ speech marked a sea-change in union thinking in Britain. Given the stance of Margaret Thatcher’s Government, most unions saw that their members’ interests would more effectively be advanced in Brussels than in London. Once the unions were on board, Labour soon followed and endorsed the single market at its 1989 conference. It was the defining moment in reconnecting the Labour Party with the continent’s mainstream left.

In Britain, from the late 1980s onward, the issue of Europe became a question of market liberalism versus social democracy. 

Delors’ stance changed the Conservative Party too, sowing the seeds of the Euroscepticism that created Brexit. Thatcher’s Bruges speech, made weeks after Delors’, was a direct response. She said: “We have not embarked on the business of throwing back the frontiers of the state at home, only to see a European super-state getting ready to exercise a new dominance from Brussels.” 

In Britain, from the late 1980s onward, the issue of Europe became a question of market liberalism versus social democracy. 


It Couldn’t Happen Here

What the unions and Thatcher knew then is true today – that workers’ rights and protections are more effectively advanced and safeguarded in Brussels than in London. Yet, in a matter of months, the UK will leave the single market, putting the social protections that it confers at risk.

Brexit is a huge victory for that part of the right – exemplified by Dominic Raab, Liz Truss and the European Research Group (ERG) – which prizes an extreme form of economic liberalism that ditches what they see as constraints on business at the expense of workers, standards and regulations. Whereas before they were constrained, and workers were protected, by EU membership, they will soon be able to do as they please. 

We have even begun to recognise the enormity of what this means. We have become use to a state of affairs where a host of rights, regulations and standards are accepted norms and are largely not even discussed because they cannot be changed without an agreement at EU level that would never be forthcoming. 

We have got used to a world where staff cannot be fired at will and where annual leave, sick pay and maternity pay are enshrined in law. None of these rights exist in the US, which is the model that many Brexiter Tories want to emulate. Early targets are likely to include working time and paid holidays, agency workers, protection against discrimination, health and safety and collective consultation on issues such as redundancy.

Gains made over decades could be undone in a matter of months, but many on the left are still seemingly complacent about Brexit, deluding themselves that ‘it couldn’t happen here’.


Johnson’s Withdrawal Agreement

The Conservatives naturally deny that they have any plans to reduce workers’ rights and protections, but the direction of travel is clear.

Under Theresa May’s deal, a commitment to uphold rights was put in the legally-binding withdrawal agreement. One of the few changes made when Boris Johnson rebranded it was to move them to the non-binding political declaration. 

It is impossible to overstate how meagre the protection of workers’ rights are in the agreement itself. It does refer to non-regression of workers’ rights, but goes on to say that, if the UK Government nevertheless wants to reduce or remove them, it simply needs to make a statement to Parliament. The bill helpfully lists six pages of rights the EU has conferred on UK workers. That’s a lot of rights, protections and safety measures that could be sacrificed on the altars of a US trade deal or Johnson’s ego. 

Johnson is now claiming both that he will not water down rights and that he will refuse to sign up to ‘level playing field’ provisions, which would ensure that standards did not fall. He can’t have it both ways. Believing Johnson’s words while ignoring his actions would be to ignore the fact that, since 2016, Brexiters have only ever shifted Brexit towards increased divergence and a harder Brexit.

What started as a project to return the UK to the common market because they didn’t like political integration has become a hard Brexit almost as bad for the economy as a pure World Trade Organisation (WTO) exit, and could become harder still over the course of this year.

Johnson resigned as Foreign Secretary because May’s Chequers deal was too closely aligned to the EU. The Conservatives dethroned May because she was seen to have offered Labour too much in her cross-party talks. He and they are committed to divergence, regardless of its consequences for the economy or for workers. 

Brexit remains a project of the right, as economically destructive as Thatcherism, with as much potential to decimate industry and manufacturing, and to do the same to the service industries which are now 80% of our economy. It will hit GDP by 6.4% and cut average wages by the same amount, and force the Government to borrow more or dramatically slash public services. What is the point in being a party of the left or the official opposition?


The Role of Leadership

Labour and the unions must now recognise what is at stake and respond. They must pressure business groups such as the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) to themselves put pressure on the Conservatives.

They must work with the EU to ensure that they remain committed to a level playing field. Perhaps most importantly, they must educate the public. One of the great tragedies of the past five years is how little many people still understand about what is at stake, how much we have to lose and how little there is to gain from Brexit. 

The Labour movement became pro-European in the 1980s because it found that it gave greater opportunity to protect and meet the aspirations of working people. The same is true today. Workers’ rights benefit not only workers but also employers and the economy as a whole, as workplace fairness and equity underpin economic efficiency and productivity. 

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There will be those who argue that Labour cannot oppose Brexit and win. This ignores the fact that Labour lost, badly, when it did not adequately oppose Brexit. It ignores the fact that most Labour voters, in both Leave and Remain seats, voted Remain in 2016 and that a clear majority of people voted for pro-Remain parties in 2019. It ignores the fact that Labour lost more Remain voters to pro-Remain parties in 2019 than it did Leave voters to the Conservatives and the Brexit Party.  It ignores the fact that the votes Labour is most likely to gain next time are from Remainers coming from the Scottish National Party (SNP), Liberal Democrats and Greens. 

As Brexit becomes real and lives, businesses and industry suffer, Labour and the unions must step up to lead. This will need to go beyond arguing for a close relationship. While a close relationship would benefit the economy and provide some certainty on rights, it would leave us open to the accusation of making the UK subject to rules over which we had no say. 

In the end, we will have to confront the question of whether we should advocate rejoining the EU. Membership is the best way to benefit the economy and the only way to retain full sovereignty. Electorally, it would position Labour with the majority of voters and outflank smaller Remain parties. Getting there will take time, but Labour’s new leader should start making the argument as soon as they are elected. Anything else lets down the people they seek to serve. 

Mike Buckley is the director of Labour for a Public Vote. He tweets at @mdbuckley.


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