Brexit is not a parlour game about political positioning

Brexit is not a parlour game about political positioning. Jobs are at stake, and with them the future of communities and industries. 

Unite’s position was clear on this from the outset, which is why we campaigned for Britain to remain in the European Union.  We lost that argument – including with many of our own members – and we accept the result.

So we must listen and learn, including on the sensitive subject of the free movement of labour, which is enshrined along with the free movement of capital, goods and services at the heart of the EU single market.  I have set out Unite’s stall clearly – we must introduce proper safeguards for communities and industries affected by EU migration by demanding proper trade union recognition and collective bargaining agreements for any employer seeking to recruit outside the UK.

That will turn the race-to-the-bottom society into a rate-for-the-job culture.  Together with other measures, like the restoration of the Migrant Impact Fund, this can start to address the concerns on this issue in communities and in those economic sectors which know that the real-world impact of a EU-wide free market in labour has been a deterioration in wage rates and other conditions.

I therefore welcome Labour’s clear commitment that it is not “wedded to free movement”.  However, that cannot mean Britain giving up on access to the single market.  Tens of thousands of Unite members’ jobs, from manufacturing to financial services, depend on open trade with the EU market.  To throw that overboard is to play Russian roulette with our prospects and prosperity.

Yet the Prime Minister’s first comments of the year were that access to the single market was not her priority.  Surprisingly, that rhetoric has been echoed by one of the other candidates for election as Unite General Secretary in the course of a speech that “borrows from the success of the UK Independence party” in the words of the Financial Times.  

It is all very well to say that British firms need to be competitive enough to thrive outside the European single market – many already do – but we know that the short-term price paid for becoming “more competitive” or “placing a premium on productivity” is lost jobs for thousands upon thousands of our members. It is wrong for anyone in government or in the trade union movement to throw access to the single market overboard in this casual way. 

That is why I urge the Prime Minister to meet with the trade unions urgently, including Unite, to discuss how to balance these competing demands.  Our members are angry about pressure on wages, but they also want reassurances that they will continue to have jobs and that our industries can thrive.  People may have voted to be out of the EU but they did not vote to be out of work. 

These are the tests for Theresa May’s government.  Can she be trusted to deliver a Brexit for all of the UK, not just for the Tory hard right?  But there are tests for trade unionists as well – we need to use the full weight of our industrial and negotiating experience with our political influence to secure a win-win for workers:  access to the single market with new safeguards on the free movement of labour.

On the one hand we cannot embrace the neo-liberal dogma of free movement without safeguards – the approach championed by bad employers and Labour’s right in the recent past.  But nor can we give an inch to a UKIP-lite message.  It is wrong in principle for a movement founded on equality for all to pitch worker against worker. But united, we can put in place a programme that gives working people what they want – prosperity and security.

Gerard Coyne refused to comment on this article but will be contributing his own article shortly. 

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