Brexit priorities: rights, living standards and jobs
Brexit is the defining issue of British politics. Our over-riding concern is to ensure that working people don’t pay the price for Brexit, and we are making progress. But there is a lot more to do to protect people’s rights at work, and we also need to tackle the impact on living standards and the risk to jobs. Our struggle is crucial, not only for working people in Britain, but for social Europe itself.
This morning I spoke at the annual meeting of the Labour Movement for Europe in London. This is an edited version of my remarks.
After the referendum
The TUC and our major unions backed remaining in the EU. We did so to protect rights at work, jobs and living standards. 60% of union members voted remain, but many of our unskilled and semi-skilled members did not.
We have to recognise there were problems with our argument: the EU frankly didn’t help, with few new rights in last decade. Just before the referendum campaign started, I asked the Social Affairs Commissioner, Marianne Thyssen, whether there was anything she could offer British working people anything to persuade them to vote to remain. She said no.
It was also about the inability of working people to enforce European workplace rights where they don’t have a union (eg Employment Tribunal fees) and because of years of economic stagnation. We didn’t persuade sufficient voters with our arguments: they felt rights were good but safe, and that the UK economy would be harmed by leaving, but they wouldn’t.
Since the leave vote, which we accept, the TUC has concentrated on defending workers’ rights and defending jobs through the closest possible trading relationship. We don’t want working people to pay the price of Brexit as they did for the global financial crisis.
But to do that – and because they are our people, and they deserve and have a right to expect our support – we also need to reach out to the abandoned groups and communities that voted to leave (including many trade union members.) We will never win if we only represent the 48%, especially if we argue that we should do so exclusively.
Working people’s rights
We have made some progress on rights albeit possibly only rhetorical. But who would have thought that defending workers’ rights would make it to number seven in Theresa May’s twelve top priorities? The government has pledged to write existing EU rights into UK law, and enhance them, initially through the Taylor review.
But there is still a lot more to do. If we don’t lock down a mechanism to retain existing rights and ensure continued compliance, including with ECJ judgments, we will gradually fall behind the rest of Europe, becoming second class citizens.
We may not face an apocalyptic assault on workers’ rights, but a gradual worsening of our rights at work. Groups like doctors and truckers excluded from the working time rules. Restricting the payment for holidays so they gradually become less worth taking. Agency workers just a little bit easier to exploit, part-time workers just a little less protected. Salami-slicing and less enforcement.
That’s one reason why we are strongly backing a transitional period after formally leaving the EU in 2019, under current rules, to protect workers’ rights for as long as possible.
Government red lines
On jobs and living standards, things are not even that good. There is a widespread aspiration for a tariff free, frictionless trade in goods and services, but controlling migration is over-riding that. It is the firmest of the government’s red lines.
We do have to address migration: concerns about jobs, wages, public services, culture and language apply across the leave/remain divide. These are valid concerns, even where tougher controls on migration will not deliver the changes people want. These concerns need to be addressed, even if it can be done within the context of regulated free movement: stronger labour market regulation, fairer distribution of tax revenues, greater efforts on community cohesion.
Brexit Secretary David Davis let the cat out of the bag in the Baltic last week when he said that high levels of migration would last for ‘years and years’. That really does throw into sharp relief the question just what are jobs and living standards being put at risk for?
Our objective must be, first and foremost, to reverse the government’s priorities, and make jobs, rights and living standards the red lines.
That’s also part of the way we respond on the divorce battles likely this summer over money. When the government should be focused on declining living standards and the risk to jobs and investment, they will be arguing over who gets the CD collection.
Impact of Brexit on the rest of Europe
After Brexit, we could become an offshore sweatshop tax haven undercutting Europe’s social model, or at least acting as a drag anchor on its future development. But again, we don’t have to paint a picture of apocalypse – a falling pound, lower corporate taxes and just slightly lower labour costs could have a significant impact on the competitive advantage of a non-EU UK.
Then there is Ireland, which is a microcosm of these points, but currently at its most contradictory. The government is advocating a Free Travel Area with border controls, frictionless trade but outside the single market. This will be the first time ever Ireland and UK have a different relationship with EU, and the implications for Ireland’s economy and the Good Friday Agreement are potentially calamitous.
So, we’re making the case to sister unions and governments across rest of Europe: partly for us, but partly for Europe, it’s in their interests and ours to make sure that Britain has continuing strong access to the single market based on compliance with labour, consumer and environmental protections.
We’ve had tremendous support from fellow trade unionists in the ETUC and other EU countries, and from governments and politicians either out of sheer solidarity or a clear understanding of their own self-interest. Rights at work are the key not only to protecting our future, but also to restoring social Europe and an EU that, in Jacques Delors’ words, people could fall in love with all over again.