The “Workers’ Brexit” delusion

A cobbled bridge over a river, with a blue border sign faintly visible towards the other end. Three cars and a small van are parked to the left side in the foreground. There is no other sign of a border, such as an passport control post or any police.Yesterday, there was a letter printed in the Guardian from one Sarah Ansell about the notion that many of those who voted for Brexit in June 2016 are now experiencing “buyer’s remorse” after Larry Elliot claimed that the strategy “required the UK to fall into recession and it has not come remotely close”. She claims that remainers refuse to accept that the EU is a neoliberal institution and that its “four freedoms” were introduced for the benefit of the “capitalist class”, not the workers. She concludes: “what we need now is to wrench away the initiative from the right and come up with an alternative workers’ sovereignty – a new Bill of Rights or written constitution, new economic priorities”. (Update: the Guardian printed a letter from someone else in response to Sarah Ansell’s letter; it’s at the bottom of the page.)

She writes:

Even now there is a complete reluctance to understand the true nature of the EU. Do remainers really believe that the four freedoms to move goods, capital, services and labour were ever introduced in the interests of workers? The continual harping on about the lies of Brexiteers ignores the bigger truth that the EU is, and always will be, unreformable, neoliberal and hugely damaging to our economy. The EU treaties have allowed the capitalist class to cut public spending, privatise, and sell our assets abroad. They threw in a few sops in terms of workers’ rights that we could have won ourselves through union action, to persuade us of some nonexistent liberal aspect to the EU.

What this ignores is that the closure of British industries and cutting of public spending has been the policy of British governments and not the EU, much as with so many of the other issues that Brexiteers moan about (e.g. people being allowed to stay here indefinitely with or without a job, something other EU countries do not allow). Other EU countries have nationalised industries including those which have been in the former EEC longer than we have. In fact, some of these countries’ nationalised industries have the contracts to run some of our privatised industries, notably our railways. Many of them have protection for workers from sacking, for example, that are more extensive than ours; many of them have shorter working days than ours (France, for example) and more liberal trade union rules (governing strikes, for example) than ours. Strikes in France regularly happen in response to legislation; in this country they are limited to single-workplace disputes about pay, conditions or sackings.

And we did not gain any rights through “union action” any time recently. On the contrary, British voters elected a government that severely restricted strikes and bought newspapers en masse which denounced trade unions and their leaders again and again. Unions are always portrayed as holding the public to ransom for their own selfish interests rather than fighting for rights and decent wages so as to benefit everyone.

The liberal left has always been fixated on immigration and racism, threatening us with a rightwing surge of parties like Ukip, which has never materialised. We, as a sovereign nation, will be able to decide on our own immigration policies.

This is a variant on “the economy hasn’t tanked yet, has it?”. The simple answer is “we are still in the EU and the shit hasn’t hit the fan yet”. We do not know what the result will be when (if) we leave the EU, especially if without a deal or with a not very favourable one. Jobs aren’t being lost wholesale, the supermarket shelves are not empty, trucks are not queueing for miles on the approach to each port. This could all change if the UK becomes the only country in the region to be outside the free trade zone all its neighbours are part of.

What we need now is to wrench away the initiative from the right and come up with an alternative workers’ sovereignty – a new Bill of Rights or written constitution, new economic priorities. Labour and the unions have the basic policies for this already. Jeremy Corbyn understands that we can only move forward on his party’s manifesto outside the EU and the single market. A mass debate on the way forward would be hugely positive and reinvigorate the labour movement.

And this ties it all together. A “workers’ sovereignty”. Never mind the fact that there aren’t enough people in this country who identify as ‘workers’ and that the working class, in as much as there is one, is not influenced by Karl Marx as much as by the likes of Kelvin McKenzie. We do not live in a pre-revolutionary society but in a post-revolutionary one where the revolution happened elsewhere, had bad results and was discredited (actually, there have been many, with undesirable to horrific, as in mass-murderous, results). Does anyone imagine that in the chaos following Brexit workers will band together under the leadership of someone like Bob Crow to demand jobs and social security when they never have done before? It’s folly. Anyone proposing radical policies and using rhetoric about “the workers” is on a hiding to nothing.

A black-and-white photo showing a two-lane road passing over a border with soldiers performing checks on a car. There is a queue of traffic in the left lane and a distance sign for Dundalk and Dublin. Concrete blocks (to guard against bombs) are positioned at regular intervals next to the road.A more likely outcome is that, encouraged by the same newspapers that shouted for Brexit and have spent decades making spurious claims about the EU, they will look for a scapegoat and it will not be themselves or the politicians who called the referendum or made a hash of the exit negotiations; it will be a minority — perhaps the remaining eastern European workers, or a minority originating from the Commonwealth — either in response to resentment over jobs or a media hit story published as a distraction. The media, after all, are still controlled by the same people they always were: wealthy Tories who know that bigotry and tittilation sell. (The Daily Mirror is better in that regard but has a circulation half that of its bigger two rivals, although all of them are declining.) Even if Labour are in power by then, even if Jeremy Corbyn is PM, no section of the British media is on his side, even the Mirror, and the Sun and Mail will be as hostile to him as they were to Neil Kinnock. He will not be able to do anything right.

And all of this is a big ‘if’. Corbyn has not won an election yet; he remains Labour leader because the party did better than expected in last year’s election but still lost and did not regain seats lost to the Tories in what had been Labour’s heartlands such as Mansfield. A Labour Brexit is not on offer right now because the Tories are in power and because there are too few Labour MPs whose careers date back to Labour’s anti-EEC days and who support Brexit; the younger generation remember the glory days of Labour’s pro-Maastricht government and think of the Foot and Kinnock eras as the low point. It’s McDonnell, Skinner and a few others, and they are all old — the youngest is John Mann, aged 58. The others could not come up with better than the “Norway option” because it preserves freedom of movement and wouldn’t isolate us and sink the economy.

Of course, it’s no secret that being in the European Union has coincided with mass privatisations, closures of major industries, clampdowns on union rights and powers and the impoverishment of much of the working class. This is because our politicians have chosen to engage with Europe in a way that benefits business rather than ordinary people. It did not have to be this way and it hasn’t been in other parts of Europe. It will not change after Brexit; the same ruling class will exist, and after they have dragged us out of the EU they will drag us out of the European Convention on Human Rights such that ordinary people have no recourse when their rights to freedom, privacy and family life are infringed by vindictive or panic legislation, or similarly-motivated executive action.

Changing the way we engage with Europe will not be easy, but it is a possibility, especially now the discontent of much of the population with the previous status quo has been made apparent. We cannot take a chance on being able to build a fairer society after we have isolated ourselves from the huge trading bloc which is on our doorstep when there isn’t another like it in the world, much less anywhere near us, when we do not know what the consequences and the media and public reaction to them will be.

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  • George Carty

    If “socialism in one country” couldn’t work in the USSR — a behemoth spanning 11 time zones — what chance would it have in our crowded little island?

  • M Risbrook

    Brexit is the beginning of the end of the EU project. Tell me, if you could pick and choose EU countries to form a new trading bloc with Britain then which ones would you pick and which ones would you reject?

  • Who’s to say we get to pick and choose? It would be great if we could join the group of countries just to our west but there isn’t one. There was talk for a while of anti-EU parties coming to power in France and the Netherlands but in both cases they didn’t. Poland et al have made hostile noises (mainly about Syrian refugees) and have rolled back on democratic freedoms but they won’t pull out — they know which side their bread is buttered on and it isn’t Russia and they won’t amount to much on their own. The EU is the only show in town and our nearest other friendly trading partners with similar lifestyles, development profiles etc to ours are thousands of miles away and have formed other alliances since we joined the EU. Maybe some Brexiteers wish they could still go to America or Canada or that their ancestors had taken the boat, but they’re stuck here.

  • M Risbrook

    Enoch Powell once stated that all empires, and that includes the EU, eventually collapse I can see Sweden and Denmark leaving the EU before 2030. Poland knows which side their bread is buttered on but is there any benefit for Britain entering into an alliance with Poland?

  • George Carty

    “Maybe some Brexiteers wish they could still go to America or Canada or that their ancestors had taken the boat, but they’re stuck here.”

    Great point — perhaps a lot of those Leave voters who complain that “Britain is full” are mentally comparing the UK not with other European countries, but with the sparsely-populated settler nations of the New World?

  • M Risbrook

    I wouldn’t be surprised if most Leave voters rarely venture out of their own suburbs. There is some correlation between people who move around the country throughout their career or move to London voting Remain and those who prefer to stay put voting Leave. I wouldn’t be surprised if a large fraction of ‘real’ Londoners voted Leave.

  • George Carty

    Well 40% of current Greater London residents did vote Leave, and the percentage is no doubt higher amongst born-Londoners (especially if you count those who no longer live in London now – White Van Dan promoted by the Sun newspaper was probably one as his house bore a West Ham flag despite being located in Gillingham territory).

  • George Carty

    “I can see Sweden and Denmark leaving the EU before 2030.”

    Presumably because you think the EU will try to force them to join the Euro?

    As for Enoch Powell, it seems to me that he was a racial/ethnic separatist but not a supremacist (I’m thinking of his speech on the massacre of suspected Mau Mau). And bizarrely for a British Tory it seems like the one empire he did have a soft spot for was the Soviet empire!

  • M Risbrook

    I’m referring to Londoners who live in London rather than Londoners who have emigrated to Gillingham and Basildon. Somewhere I have On Being a Londoner by Russell White. It’s a good read.

  • M Risbrook

    Enoch Powell had some vision of Britain having a friendly relationship with Russia in the future but presumably after the collapse of communism. I will have to look deeper into this.

    As you say, it certainly wasn’t a common view within the Conservative Party but in a post empire Britain where the EU is a dead end and the wrong club then I can understand the viewpoint to an extent.