Workers’ rights after Brexit

Following Theresa May’s Lancaster House speech to ambassadors earlier today, the text of the speech has been released (official gov.uk version; alternatively from EurActive.com, including some commentary and reaction).

Part of the text included a section on workers’ rights – indeed, the protection of workers’ rights is principle no. 7 of the government’s 12-point plan in defining the ‘global’ role of a post-Brexit UK; one of the issues which will define the ‘new, positive and constructive partnership between Britain and the European Union’ which our negotiators are tasked with delivering. (Whether, of course, that sort of partnership can be had by making very specific threats about the tax position of what will happen if we don’t get what we define as a good deal is an open question.)

On the face of it, a commitment to protecting workers’ rights is very welcome, and no doubt former colleagues in the trade union movement in the UK will have taken careful note of the text as a means by which to hold Theresa May to account in the future. Here, I have noted the hostage to fortune of the commitment not just to the ‘full protection’ of those rights but also to their maintenance. Whether such a commitment is actually delivered in practice – in addition to the legal aspects of workers being cut-off from the judgments of the European Court of Justice – is a different point and, I suspect, none of us are likely to be taken in by it for very long. Certainly, the STUC has been sceptical; as indeed has the TUC. It is, at least, a desire to keep workers on board with this process as it gets underway; whether it amounts to any more than that is another thing entirely.

Firstly, whatever the esoterics of belonging, or not belonging, to the Single Market; or being a member, or not being a member, of a customs union – any situation in which the terms of trade for goods and services can be accessed more easily or more quickly from other suppliers elsewhere (and that is the point of the Single Market) is likely to lead to workers paying the price in terms of jobs. That may be transitional, or it may be long-term; but the real price being paid by men and women in the UK is likely to be severe. And any loss of jobs is likely to have knock-on effects on others as that spending is removed from the economy. Make no mistake, there will be a cost to GDP of our exit from these things.

Secondly, a rejection of free movement represents a backwards step for the personal and professional development of people everywhere across Europe; as well as a rejection of the economic benefits which freedom of movement has brought to this country (remembering not least that our labour market has managed to absorb the impact of free movement quite easily). There is, perhaps, a debate to be had around the extent to which the UK is a low-wage, low-productivity country because of migration – that creating low skill jobs is an easy way to absorb labour when inwards migration is high – but that (a) represents a number of ‘fallacies’ which I won’t go into here; and (b) free movement and the absorption of refugees doesn’t seem to have affected Germany’s position as a high-wage, high-productivity country.

Thirdly, people with memories of the 80s and 90s will remember that advances in social rights under Conservative governments came only as a result of the EU being willing to stretch its own rules. Such memories die hard, and this is the primary reason for casting doubt on May’s (perhaps sincere) words today. Tory governments which were, in many respects, less hard-right than this one rejected workers’ rights during those periods and, looking at the records of this lot (here, in terms of workers’ rights; here in terms of the NHS), you wouldn’t trust them with the keys to the chicken coop, let alone with workers’ rights. And remember that the promise to have workers on the board, which May featured in campaign interviews, has now been dropped in favour of a right for workers to be heard by the board. Codetermination for workers it ain’t.

Some might argue that the global institutions are waking up to the need for workers to have a pay rise, for example, and that workers’ rights might thus be on a more solid footing than under Conservative Government hitherto; I’ll believe that when I see it and, as long as I see Conservative politicians attacking trade unions – the organisations fighting for a better deal for working people – I don’t see that.

Fourthly, and slightly in extension of my third point, I’m amazed at the tortous process that May must have gone through in order to be able to argue that the defence of workers’ rights should be one of the defining principles in establishing that new partnership with the EU. Protecting workers’ rights can be done really rather easily by staying in the EU – for all the reasons expressed above – but also because social democracy and social consensus lays very much behind the ethos of (other*) European states. The language of workers’ rights comes much more easily to continental Europeans, even to centre-right parties, than it does to a party rooted in adversarialism and zero sum philosophies. You might recall that Cameron took his MEPs away from the centre-right European People’s Party in 2009 (‘happy neighbours’ – hmm: how did that go again?). If we wanted to protect workers’ rights, we have no need to leave the EU and its inclusion in May’s speech today, when workers’ rights are jeopardised by the simple fact of seeking to withdraw from the EU, thus sits very, very oddly.

Fifthly, I was against withdrawal from the EU from the perspective of workers’ rights for pretty much the same reasons that I am against Scottish independence – I’m yet to be convinced that a retreat into isolationism caused by nations defining themselves more narrowly makes any sense in a globalising world when it is nations coming together that will provide the tools to tackle the multi-nationals. A ‘global Britain’ is a ridculous notion should its desire to isolate from its neighbours allows it to be picked off easily either because it is desperate for trade, or investment or because multinationals choose to play nations off against each other. That’s as true now of dealing with the tax affairs of Amazon, Apple and Google (for example), and other increasingly large ‘platforms’ of ‘self-employed’ workers in the gig economy as it ever was in more simpler times: all of whom must be rubbing their hands with glee at the threats that May has made today.

Tackling those problems is key to workers’ rights in the next decade. Not only do we not achieve that that by a desire to ‘go it alone’, but our unwillingness to recognise the implications for workers’ rights of our threats if we don’t get what we want is symptomatic that workers’ rights were actually, and despite today’s profession of them, never particularly important to May’s strategy in the first place.

* Fog in the Channel, Continent isolated (again)

The EU referendum: what precisely did it seek to settle?

The EU referendum. So 2016, I know.

But crossing my Twitter timeline several times late yesterday evening were references to this post, from a blog also hosted on WordPress, by Dominic Cummings, whose most immediate former guise was the Campaign Director for Vote Leave. (Just for posterity, here is his car-crash appearance before the Treasury Committee back in April, being comprehensively ‘kebabed’, to use a word from a former political generation, by the Chair, Andrew Tyrie, not least on the words written in his campaign’s leaflets as well as on that bloody bus.) My post here is not intended to be a response to Cummings – I haven’t read the post, only glanced through it – and no doubt he highlights some important lessons which political campaigners will be taking into account in future campaigns.

I’m not a particular fan of 20,000-word blog posts, for a number of reasons, especially when they seek to dress up barely-disguised revisionism with the use of cod-history. However, Cummings’s latest effort is noteworthy for a couple of reasons and I did want to contribute a few thoughts about the important issues he raises.

Firstly, he spends a lot of time distancing himself from the events of the summer. Apart from the thoughts of writing about the referendum making him ‘feel sick’ (though he seems to have overcome that now: a catharsis, of a type), Cummings confesses to having kept no diary and to having a ‘lousy memory’ – both of which make him something of an unreliable witness, even at this short distance (as indeed does his desire to put the knife into others at frequent intervals). Most importantly, we should not lose sight of Cummings being politically closely associated with Michael Gove, and that his work (not least here) is informed fundamentally by that relationship. Cummings also comments that ‘by far the best’ book on the referendum thus far otherwise encourages people ‘to exaggerate greatly my importance’. For the person who was the Campaign Director on the winning side of the referendum, this is quite an astonishing admission. It doesn’t seem to stem from false modesty, and neither is it in any way an apology for it (at least, not yet). But if Cummings is indeed attempting now to minimise his role in the campaign, or distance himself from it, why on earth would he do that?

Secondly, this led me to wonder about Cummings’s own motivations to get involved at such a senior, strategic level with such a potentially-disastrous campaign (as he himself initially sets out): what burning views did he himself have as to why the UK should leave the EU? There is, buried among the ramblings and the political knifings, a brief section on ‘why’ about three-quarters of the way through, containing four views of his own. Cummings’s view seems to be that we should indeed leave the EU, but his reasons for doing so, as set out here, are, quite frankly, half-formed, incoherent and contradictory. I don’t actually want to repeat or respond to them here (although responding would be very easy). Unsurprisingly, perhaps, giving the money that we spend on the EU to the NHS doesn’t feature among these reasons (although Cummings does report elsewhere in the piece that spending some of it in this way was his own view about what should happen).

But my point here is that this, by itself, is also quite astonishing. Cummings is a professional campaigner and a political activist: acting by a set of principles and values, and believing in the things that you espouse when you campaign for things, probably comes more easily in one of these roles than the other; and professional campaigners, like lawyers, have little reason to inspect too closely the morals of those for whom they work. But for a Campaign Director of one of the two designated EU referendum campaigns not to have a clear, coherent and robust view on the major political issue of the day, which will shape this country’s future over the next century, is notable.

For me, Cummings’s post simply re-emphasises and reinforces the existing view that the referendum was about the divisions within the Tory Party and not about the EU and, in Cummings’s case, designed to elevate the political ambitions of Gove in particular. We all knew or at least suspected that so, in this respect, he has done us all a bit of a favour. Having – and importantly – secured the official ‘anti’ campaign designation from the UKIP-dominated Leave.EU, Vote Leave never expected to win the campaign, or to have actually to deal with the aftermath of a referendum which emerged with the result it espoused; it thought this was its best chance to do serious damage (in internal party political terms, and acknowledging that not all in Vote Leave were Tories) to Cameron. Hence the sclerosis in government now on the issue (and, indeed, in Labour: compare this, today, with this at the time of the development of the – actually, very good – Conference policy): the government is scrambling around to address a policy outcome that was actually a side-issue to the main reasons why the campaign was run and which few of the individuals now in government actually wanted. No wonder Brexit seems to mean no more than Brexit. Or a red, white and blue Brexit. Or a hard Brexit that is, honestly, not really a hard Brexit. Clarity is, indeed, not only long overdue but really, one would think, quite important. (And that, by the way, is one of the reasons why parliament – not government – must instigate this process.)

Using the EU to further Conservative Party politics, and juggling so lightly with this country’s economic, political and social future in consequence: no wonder the thought of his role in retrospect, given subsequent events, makes Cummings ‘feel sick’.

Some reflections on Barbara

Storm Barbara (and then, in turn, Storm Conor) brought some strong winds over Christmas and, aside of a few days – particularly the last three – strong winds have continued ever since. But, in these few days of calm, normal life seems to have reverted itself (the bins have now gone back to their usual position by the front gate, for example; and a mist has enveloped the bay for much of the last three days, currently providing a salty wash to our windows), and we have probably reached the point where we can think that they are indeed in the past and provide a few post-event thoughts on what the storms brought. Calm weather is playing havoc with our stove (but that’s a different story!). (9pm edit: and has indeed already ended, with winds twice the speed they were earlier this afternoon, with a forecast of virtually three times tomorrow. But at least the stove is responding a little more enthusiastically!)

Firstly, everything about the structure of the house is intact – in particular: the roof tiles are all still in place; the patch on the chimney breast where we have a small leak seems to be holding, and the roof insulation is nicely drying out; and the wooden garden shed is still there, on the same site, with no leaks or holes, and with a felt roof whose nails have securely held the laps. And the satellite dish (which has to be located on the most exposed, south-facing wall) is still up and operating. That’s all a bit of a relief, but it’s also a tribute to the work and the abilities of the people who remodelled our house, and built and sited the shed (on a concrete base, dug into the ground a little, and with concreted-in fence posts). Furthermore, our power lines held up, as did our communications systems although the mobile phone mast did seem to be knocked out for a while. That’s a tribute to the resilience of the infrastructure and to the skilled work of those responsible for predicting the weather and for planning emergency responses and to those workers located on the ground where they can respond, if required, to emergency situations.

Secondly, the people who originally built our house did so not only with style but with real sensitivity to the conditions and the approach of the local weather. We are some 12-15′ or so up from the shore to the east, so we don’t need to worry so much about getting flooded out; but in a little dip as the land curves down to the sea. The result is that prevailing (south-)westerly winds are forced up by the land off the sea to the west (our house is sited on a headland), and are then up at roof level when they hit us. Consequently, the main structure and foundations of the house don’t get the shaking that they otherwise might on slightly higher ground.

Thirdly, Storm Conor brought winds gusting up to 83 mph early on Boxing Day morning (around 6-7 am). This was the worst on South Uist (although Scalpay, off Harris, had stronger winds). This is not the worst storm we could experience – but Storm Angus, in the third week of November (and the first of the named storms this winter), brought comparable strength winds to the south coast of England. This is a useful reminder that bad weather can occur anywhere and including in well-populated areas on the mainland (not just the mountain tops).

I can well understand the marketing-based attractions of depicting life in the Outer Hebrides as in some way ‘on the edge‘ – there’s a romanticism in that, as well as the appeal of the opportunity to experience weather apparently more remote from the ordinary lives of UK urbanites. The weather here can be tough – the winds that go unreported on the TV news can make even a January walk along the shore something of a physical challenge – but there are dangers in attributing such characteristics to these islands. They can make them appear more remote, or cut-off, from the weather that all of us can experience, from time to time. Worse, however, is that they risk marginalising (and somewhat patronising) the people who live here (and here I don’t mean me, a junior of just six months standing, but my friends and neighbours who were born here and who have chosen to live their whole lives here), highlighting that they are, perhaps, in some way clinging on to life, forever threatened by the elements and whose lives are thereby dominated by them. To the people who live here, the Uists and Benbecula, and the rest of the Hebrides, are not in any way ‘on the edge’ but central: a fact of their life and to which they are as well-adjusted as the circumstances surrounding those of us who live in other places elsewhere. To a fisher, or a farmer or a crofter, the weather is what it is and that’s as true for a Devon farmer threatened by floods as it is for a Uist one. In portraying the Hebrides as ‘on the edge’ we undermine that everyone on all these islands, right across the length and breadth of the UK and Ireland, are one people, different in chacteristics but united in hopes and dreams, and in our abilities to be resilient and to rise to the challenges which life presents us.

A happy, and safe, 2017 to all readers.