From the TUC

Europe: while Tories burn, unions must do more than fiddle

19 May, by in International

One-time FT journalist Stefan Stern recently blogged some advice from Napoleon about how to respond to the Conservative implosion over Europe. “Do not interrupt your enemy while he is making a mistake,” was the broad thrust, and it is wise advice. As someone who started referring to “swivel-eyed” europhobes way back in January when Cameron made the European speech that his coterie crowed over but which may turn out to be his biggest error, I am well aware of the dangers of entering the Conservative-UKIP ‘debate’.

But unions need to beware of standing on the sidelines. The stakes are too high. We need to shift the terms of the debate back from Britain’s relationship with Europe to the economic crisis. As ATL General Secretary Mary Bousted put it last week “I wish they’d obsess about jobs, instead of Europe!”

First, the persistent bidding war is pushing the main party in the coalition to escalate the good things offered by the EU that they would willingly ditch – guaranteed holidays and rest breaks, health and safety generally, employment rights and influence over global issues like climate change, tax avoidance and so on. We can rely only so far on the Liberal Democrats to prevent this becoming the policy of the UK Government: in his otherwise excellent attack on Lord Lawson’s call for a Brexit last Thursday, Vince Cable still stooped low enough to take a swipe at health and safety standards as burdensome.

Second, the overwhelming noise generated by the UKIP-Conservative conflict about who can be tougher, amplified by a media generally hostile to the EU, could shift the political centre rightwards, emboldening europhobes in Labour’s ranks and frightening the timid triangulators who conceive of political leadership as slavishly following simplistic opinion polls rather than developing narratives that move public opinion in a progressive direction.

What this means in practice is that when people ask what is the cause of the problems they face in their everyday lives, the EU becomes the target (or migrants, or scroungers – the right is nothing if not replete with potential scapegoats), and Brexit the solution. There is some scope for arguing the toss on this, as Lord Howe has, Vince Cable did on Thursday and Lord Mandelson is doing today (although I’m not sure any of them are convincing advocates.)

But what is more likely to succeed is a remorseless focus on the alternative narrative, that pins the blame for the economic woes facing families and communities – higher prices, lower or stagnant wages, rapidly worsening public services – on austerity economics, growing inequality and a tax system based on one rule for us and no rules for the rich.

There is a place for the EU in that narrative, but only if it changes course itself, for example ending the hatchet job on the ‘programme countries’ and workplace rights; building on the youth guarantee and a significant and sustainable investment stimulus; and tackling tax havens, base erosion and profit shifting. Only on the last issue is the EU beginning to move, and there is a lot more to do, as the ETUC social compact proposes.

2 Responses to Europe: while Tories burn, unions must do more than fiddle

  1. John
    May 21st 2013, 1:45 am

    ´´First, the persistent bidding war is pushing the main party in the coalition to escalate the good things offered by the EU that they would willingly ditch – guaranteed holidays and rest breaks, health and safety generally, employment rights and influence over global issues like climate change, tax avoidance and so on´´.

    When I read this Owen and being overseas, it is somewhat concerning; that some people in THIS government could even consider losing all the gains that have been made the past almost 40 years. It reads as if they really want to turn back the clock and return the status of ordinary workers to that of the Great Depression or the Victorian era and the very claustrophobic factories or the hiring fairs, while they themselves are completely financially protected & cushioned from the realities of everyday life. I read some of the comments in one of The Guardian articles yesterday comparing Germany & the UK. One reader commented [& an experienced worker in both counties], if given a choice of living / working in either country which one would he choose? He was in no doubt, he would not choose the UK!

    I know that there are many eastern European workers in the UK doing many menial jobs, because they are cheap & convenient to be used by certain unscrupulous gangmasters and employers, etc; they speak little English and cannot therefore constructively argue against any of their bad gafas. Joining a union is unofficially ‘not’ allowed. They are also very convenient to blame for many of the ills of the economy e.g. the high UK unemployment situation, local trouble & crime! That is something which in future years is going to haunt us – the ‘sins of our fathers’. Rather like the discrimination against race, religion, women, disabled & handicapped people, age, etc.

    Thanks for this article.

  2. John
    May 21st 2013, 5:22 am

    & Owen here is another comment from The Guardian ref a good article ‘Pressure and job insecurity felt by UK workers at 20-year high'; by reader Thickstp at 5.36pm 20.05.2013

    ´´The Tory strategy is to remove all employment protection. That is what they want to “renegotiate” with the EU. No wonder they don’t want to discuss the substance of any renegotiation just yet. They need the Turkeys to vote for Christmas in 2015 before they let that one slip out.

    Apparently those nasty folk in the EU are preventing our fine upstanding Anglo-Saxon venture capitalists from sacking the entire workforce every time they asset strip another acquisition. And as we all know, what’s good for the greedy tax-avoiding asset stripper is always good for Britain´´.

    There were many good comments for this article, but I chose this one as the second paragraph definitely rang a bell with me!.

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