Poll shows workers’ voices aren’t being heard in #EUreferendum debate
The new polling released by the Fabian Society at the weekend has some hard messages for both Remain and Leave campaigners in the EU referendum debate. There’s one over-riding message however, that echoes what the TUC (and a few others) have been saying: The campaigns aren’t currently addressing the concerns of working people.
So far the referendum has either been about the impact on business, or about splits in the Conservative Party (indeed the Labour Party’s comparative silence on the issue may just be because unity – which polls generally confirm is essential for popular support – isn’t newsworthy!). Indeed, a lot of the media coverage seems to characterise the referendum as a title bout between one Old Etonian backed by the hedge funds and another Old Etonian backed by the banks (Boris Johnson and David Cameron respectively).
But the big issues in the referendum are all about the vast majority of the electorate – as shown by the TUC’s earlier analysis of what Brexit could mean for working people’s rights, and the overwhelming evidence that Brexit would hurt jobs and investment. And these big issues will be crucial to getting blue-collar voters (categorised in the poll as social groups C2DE) to vote in the referendum.
That’s something Remain campaign chief Sir Stuart Rose clearly forgot when he was in front of MPs last month.
Our General Secretary, Frances O’Grady, commented on the polling that:
“This research shows that ordinary British workers will be decisive in the European referendum – and campaigners should focus on workers’ rights and jobs.
But this will come as news to the Prime Minister, who’s running a Remain campaign focused only on the boardroom and the City. He might just lose this referendum if he doesn’t start telling working people what’s in it for them. And given that this report shows that trade unions can play a crucial role in mobilising for a Remain vote, it’s time he stopped his unnecessary and divisive attacks on unions.
This report also poses a challenge to Leave campaigners. They must come clean with workers that Brexit will mean the loss of European guarantees for important rights and protections at work.”
The Fabian polling (in collaboration with and part-funded by the TUC) indicated that rights at work – especially protections against discrimination – are popular with significant numbers of those who will have a vote on 23 June. However, those voters don’t necessarily feel that their rights are a key issue in the referendum.
In part, this is precisely because they haven’t featured in the Remain or Leave campaigns, but it’s also because people often don’t associate those work rights with membership of the European Union, and aren’t convinced they would be at risk if we left – admittedly by a slim margin of 39% against 38%.
It is understandable that the Leave campaign would like to keep it that way, but the Remain campaign needs to be more forthright on the issue.
The TUC and trade unions want to make sure that people are aware how many of their rights at work – secured not as a generous gift by Brussels bureaucrats but campaigned and fought for by trade unionists across the EU – are genuinely at risk in June. One key finding in the polling is that when linked with the track record of the Conservative Party on workers’ rights, the proportion of C2DE voters who think those rights would be under threat jumps significantly to 59%.
The research also stressed that ‘risk’ is the most potent card in the Remain campaign’s armoury. This is partly because the Leave campaign simply has not come clean about the impact of leaving the EU (not just on rights at work), and partly because people know that a future outside the European Union is unlikely to be catastrophic, but very likely to be uncomfortable.
Leave campaigners are always shouting about the Remain campaign being based on ‘Project Fear’ (as opposed to Leave campaign rhetoric about terrorism, for example). In reality, ‘Project Fear’ is self-defeating: that’s why you tend to see fewer people walking London’s streets with placards saying ‘the end of the world is nigh’ – for some reason, people ignored them. But ‘Project Risk’ is more believable, and more accurate too.
It’s easy to overstate both cases, of course, and often the nuances get lost. Earlier TUC-funded research showed that 4 million British private sector jobs depend on trade with the rest of the EU, but we’re careful to make clear that we’re not saying Brexit would necessarily cause the loss of all those jobs, just that they would be put at risk. There is justifiable concern about the loss of 40,000 jobs directly and indirectly linked to the steel industry in Port Talbot, and that’s just 1% of the number of jobs associated with intra-EU trade.
The polling also showed significant concerns about the impact of Brexit on immigration, showing that, so far, Leave campaigners have been more effective at handling the issue than Remain, who have predominantly argued that migration is good for business and the economy as a whole. Previous TUC polling on immigration has shown that the most effective progressive way of addressing popular concerns about immigration is to push for tougher labour market regulation to prevent exploitation and therefore undercutting. Again, this adds weight to the case for a stronger Remain message on workers’ rights.
As the report on the polling says, Remain campaigners…
“have built a case for Europe on the backs of business people and statistics, and they have failed to tell a story about local jobs and rights at work.”
However, the last table in the report shows that, when asked who they trusted most to convey messages on jobs and rights, it is trade unions who score best – considerably above the business audience, and even further ahead of any of the main party leaders.