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)