Why British trade unions should support Brexit

Article written by Bert Schouweburg, International Officer, GMB, in a strictly personal capacity.

It comes as no surprise that the corporate media has reduced the Brexit debate to an argument between two groups of Conservative politicians as to whether the UK, or more accurately, British business will fare better inside or outside the EU.

In reality, there is little to choose between the two factions, led by Boris Johnson and David Cameron who are both disciples of the same neoliberal dogma advocating the shrinking of the state and the removal of all restrictions and regulations hindering the pursuit of profit. Where they differ is on how this can be best achieved. For Johnson, that means avoiding at all costs the building of a European super-state, the foundations of which have already been laid, while Cameron sees the EU as a guarantor of corporate privilege in a competitive, globalised economy.

Despite the best attempts of the mainstream press to portray their differences as a battle for Britain, neither Johnson nor Cameron really cares about sovereignty. Both these old Etonians wave the Union Flag with gusto when it suits them, but they know which side of the class divide they are on.
No such clarity of thought or any semblance of class consciousness pervades the leadership of the British trade unions supporting the campaign to remain in the EU. If there were any lingering doubts about union bureaucracies being part of the Establishment, one does not have to look much further than ex-TUC General Secretary, “Sir” Brendan Barber sharing a platform with Mr Cameron.

Seeing Harriet Harman and the latest useful idiot, Sadiq Khan, doing the same only serves to underline that the British labour movement and the political party that is supposed to represent its interests in Parliament have learned nothing from the Scottish independence debacle when working class voters showed just what they thought of collaborating with Tories by voting SNP en masse at subsequent elections.

Even some of those on the left advocating Brexit fall into the trap of justifying their beliefs by being drawn into futile arguments about prospects for GDP growth outside the EU instead of having the courage of their convictions to denounce it for what it is: an institution specifically created to preserve the hegemony of capital on a European–wide basis.

Those that dare to challenge Brussels’ authority, such as Greece, are severely punished. As their people are dragged into a darkening morass of mass unemployment, unpayable debt and grinding austerity, the pro-EU unions wistfully yearn for the sunlit uplands of some mystical social Europe, conveniently forgetting that, if it ever existed, it did so in the post-war decades before falling victim to recession and the neoliberal pushback launched by Thatcher and Reagan.

British trade unions’ defence of the EU is entirely consistent with their domestic policy of not questioning the capitalist status quo. Their principle reason for staying in the EU is that European legislation has protected workers’ rights that would otherwise have been removed by hostile governments at home, even though they have for the most part been enshrined in British primary legislation.

Not only is this a defeatist position, it also ignores the fact that for millions of British workers in precarious jobs or bogus self-employment, statutes such as the Working Time Directive are an irrelevance. Moreover, it also ignores the cumulative effect of trade agreements currently being negotiated in secret by the EU that, if promulgated, will render much of the labour legislation obsolete.

It is, however, on the subject of immigration where the pro-EU argument is at its weakest. Whilst correctly supporting the principle of equal treatment for migrant workers, pro-EU trade unions have failed to formulate any plan of action that could make it happen. The accession of former Soviet bloc states to the EU, the destruction of small scale agriculture by the common agricultural policy, the demise of heavy industry and the vast differences in purchasing power between eastern and western Europe has inevitably led to an exodus of young people from the former to the latter.

The net result in the UK is a plethora of cheap labour, informal employment and a race to the bottom in workers’ terms and conditions, regardless of the EU’s much-vaunted employment laws into which the unions put so much faith.

There is clearly a role for an integrated European community of nations, built around principles of local, participative democracy and mutual benefit – everything that the EU is not. On the contrary, the EU is the embodiment of monopoly capitalism, a fundamentally undemocratic organisation created by and run for the benefit of transnational corporations, which is why the US President, the US Treasury, the IMF and the World Bank are so keen for Britain to stay. If the UK goes, it could put the entire project in jeopardy and that in itself is a very good reason for the unions to support a vote to leave.

Bert Schouweburg, International Officer, GMB, in a strictly personal capacity.