Saturday, 23 December 2017

If there is hope for Labour, it lies in the collision course being set with unions over workers’ rights

“If there is hope, it lies in the proles”, wrote George Orwell in 1984. If we ignore the negative connotations of the word and interpret the word “prole” to mean simply “workers”, he might have had a point with a direct resonance for Brexit Britain.

It has been apparent for some time that the legitimate arguments of Leavers in favour of a Britain which would “take back control” were not generally made with the intention of increasing protections for workers. Naturally we might expect Tory or UKIP voters to be less interested in such protections (even among Tory Remainers), and even keen to remove them to have a supposedly “more dynamic, less red tape” economy.

And although evidently a significant portion of Labour voters (I calculate it at around 2.9m voters*) still voted Leave, given that this segment was less than 10% of the voting population, it still seems believable that the inhabitants of this modest demographic were either (a) further-to-the-left middle-class voters, who did not require such protections and further, felt it more important that the EU was preventing Britain becoming the standalone socialist paradise envisaged by Corbyn; or (b) people on more modest incomes who were simply unaware of the impact on protections that the EU afforded them and how they personally might miss them once they were gone.

And that is because in a party of “the many”, any other explanation would imply a significant number of turkeys deliberately voting for Xmas. The reality is unarguable that there are a number of basic workers’ protections which would suddenly vanish in the event of a poor deal (just ten are listed here); an outcome more Bermuda than Switzerland, certainly.

And so the fudging of the whole Brexit issue by Labour’s leadership – whose aides last week admitted to the Guardian that Corbyn has deliberately attempted to ride both horses in the Leave-Remain debate – has now left Labour, post Article 50, in the bizarre position of trying to pretend to defend workers’ rights from the weakest of positions, and one which the leadership itself has fatally undermined.

The result? The head of the TUC, Frances O’Grady, is essentially campaigning for basic rights in the face of at best apathy and at worst opposition from the Labour Leader’s Office, which does not really want to be in either the Single Market or the Customs Union. Corbyn’s silence on the Working Time Directive, meanwhile, was palpable, as PoliticsHome’s Emilio Casalicchio pointed out:

At some point that fudging clearly becomes unsustainable. This week, the GMB echoed O’Grady’s concerns over the EU Working Time Directive. At some point, they will realise they need to stop politely criticising the Tories, who largely do not care, and turn their fire on the Labour leadership to urge its strong support for those parts of EU legislation that are important to their members.

Even Corbyn’s great ally on the hard left, Len McCluskey of Unite, is being weakened by the legal challenge to his election as General Secretary, this week announced as being a little more serious than many had expected, now his case will be heard by a former High Court judge. If he were to be replaced as leader, not only would the balance of opinion on this issue shift considerably, the combination with pressure from other unions might be enough to cause a serious realignment within a party already deeply frustrated by its leader’s dithering on the country’s most important issue of the day.

If this burgeoning realisation of the incompatibility of Labour’s position and their own in the major unions at least pushed the leadership into a clear Labour commitment to Customs Union and Single Market retention, to be underwritten by a final Commons vote or even a second referendum, all might not be lost in the Brexit negotiations.

Who knows? It could even trigger a fightback amongst the more feisty members of the PLP. Now that really would be “taking back control”.

Whatever happens, a failure by unions to use their leverage now would mean an enormous change to their officials’ jobs, and their members’ livelihoods, post-Brexit.

*Based on YouGov’s split in Brexit vote by 2015 general election allegiance, as reported by Politico.

This post first published at Labour Uncut

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