By Johnny Lewis
(Johnny Lewis is the nom de plume of a leading UK trade unionist)
Those on the left wishing to leave the EU need to be able to answer two questions: whether Brexit will benefit unions and workers in any practical sense, and whether the “left exit” campaign will help develop workers’ consciousness and the left politically. When leaving is put in such sharp terms the idea of a left wing exit rapidly falls apart, particularly around the consequence for unions.
Unions can only progress member’s interests in two ways: industrially and through legislation. As unions’ industrial power has declined so the importance of pro-union legislation has increased. Seen as a totality such legislation creates a floor below which unions and workers’ rights cannot fall. With one major exception (TU recognition) all such post 1980 legislation originates from the EU.
It is the case our floor of rights is weaker than many other European counties, a cumulative effect of the way European laws have been introduced in the UK – the Posted Workers Directive being a case in point. This has often been cited as an example of legislation which divides workers: in reality the Directive gives member states latitude to determine what constitutes the minimum rate of pay. The Blair Government set the rate at the minimum wage creating a two tier workforce while in Ireland they linked the Posted workers rate to the ‘going rate’ set by collective bargaining. While we may blame many things on the EU the vast majority of problems unions have with EU legislation is a consequence of how successive UK governments have enacted EU legislation.
However weak the present floor of rights may be, post-exit the Tory Government would have the ideal conditions in which to set about dismantling our present laws, further eroding unions’ abilities to defend members and further worsening workers’ terms and conditions. The consequence of this pulling apart of the floor would also fire the starting gun for a European wide race to the bottom as E.U. countries were forced to compete with the rock bottom wages of UK workers. What possible benefit can unions and workers derive from such a development? On this fundamental level of workers’ rights those who wish to leave do not have a leg to stand and so tend to keep quiet on this pivotal matter, unlike the populist right.
The major argument put forward by the exit camp which directly purports to have workers interest at heart comes from UKIP. They argue foreign labour has reduced wage rates, hence ending immigration will resolve low pay. Such demagogy shifts the blame for the decline in wages from the employer and government to ‘the foreigner’ it also writes out any role for unions in bidding up wages.
We can see from the floor of rights question to the populist rights use of the decline in wages there are no trade union based reasons for exit, unless someone wished to contend the floor of rights was irrelevant or believed the Tories will leave it intact. As for those wishing for a left exit, it is inconceivable that could blame migrants for low wages.
Unable to put forward any trade union based rationale for exit those advocating Brexit can only do so from a political perspective. While it’s quite permissible to claim their political reasons for exit ‘trump’ the trade union reasons for remaining, for sure such arguments better be extremely compelling: I’d submit that while the arguments they put forward may be many things, ‘compelling’ is not one of them.
The left’s political arguments for exit are not straightforward as they do so from a number of different political standpoints. Here I consider the arguments advocated by many of the far-left.
Until the late 60’s all of today’s far-left supported what was the Common Market / EEC: but by the 1975 referendum most had shifted their position to a no vote. This about face arose from a desire to relate to the massed ranks of the virulent anti – EEC Labour Party/ CP and trade union left.
Today this rationale has long been forgotten morphing into something far more esoteric. Their argument for exit has two main components the first part holds the EU is an emerging imperialist power and therefore needs to be resisted the second puts forward the view that an exit would precipitate a crisis in the UK and within the EU, making it easier for workers to struggle against austerity.
The ‘imperialist’ argument is bound up with a view of a world divided into two camps the imperialist and anti-imperialists, included in this latter group is Russia, indeed Russia is viewed as the bulwark, the vanguard in the struggle against imperialism. This understanding of imperialism is a continuation of the way Stalinism divided the world between those who supported the ‘Soviet’ block and the imperialist west. This left advocacy of this reworked Stalinist world view removes any critical assessment of what a state or movement’s attitude is towards national self-determination or towards a counties working class and its labour movement, substituting a criteria which backs sates and movements based on their opposition to the west. On a global scale this has seen them back Russian’s imperialist aims in Crimea and support for the butcher Assad.
As a general understanding of imperialism it is deeply flawed, set within an EU context it is risible, once its Marxian flourishes are removed we are left with a prosaic point which boils down to wanting to leave the EU because its capitalist. It should be added that this fatuous view seems to be the cornerstone of all on the left who wish to exit. One may legitimately ask given the EU is constituted by 28 capitalist states who, by and large, pursue neo liberal polices, many of whom, the UK included, are real not proto imperialist powers what else could this institution be other than capitalist?
So if the imperialism rationale fails to run, what of the second element in their argument the idea that leaving the EU will destabilise capitalism? This idea represents the politics of my enemy’s enemy is my friend and is more akin – in its consequences on unions and workers, to anarchism or nihilism than trade unionism, or socialism, let alone a Marxian standpoint.
Although it is impossible to say what level of destabilisation exit will have on capital we can say with certainty it will have a detrimental impact on unions and the working class. Moreover the impact of a serious downturn caused by exit is likely to have precisely the opposite effect to what its left advocates believe will happen. Rather than helping the fight against austerity, attacks on unions and workers will be intensified while the labour movement will be divided and unable to respond as a direct consequence of the political chaos exit will sow within its ranks. In truth such chaos will not be down to the left’s intervention, rather an exit victory will build an insurgent populist right and it is that which the movement, particularly the Labour Party will have to contend with.
Across Europe and North America globalisation is causing a rising level of hopelessness among large sections of the working classes who are being galvanised into activity by the demagogy and programme of the populist right. The common denominator across all these movements, and what roots them in workers consciousness is the appeal to their respective nationalism.
The referendum should then not be seen solely as being about in or out it is also an episode in the formation of this right-wing. Not least because the working class base of the exit campaign are not concerned with which model of capital accumulation best suits the UK, or for that matter the decline in workers’ rights rather the referendum is a lightning rod for hitting back against the causes of their social malaise, whether it is about politicians not listening, their growing impoverishment, or their belief that exit will reverse Britain’s decline not least by stopping immigration. In voting for exit these workers will not have been influenced by the incoherent arguments of the left rather they will cast their vote bound hand and foot to the reactionary leaders of the out campaign.
Once the impact of destabilisation on the working class is grasped and the wider political impact on working class politics is comprehended it is very far from the case that our enemies’ enemy, in this instance UKIP, is our friend, or maybe I fail to see the big picture because I fail to understand the dialectic.
The above is not to endorse the EU as it is today – far from it: those who advocate leaving are right when they speak about its undemocratic nature. In fact those on the left within the unions not only largely agree about the limits of the EU but also know what to do about its shortcomings; our problem is we have not done it.
Organising industrially and politically is our answer, it is our answer to the limitations of the Posted Workers Directive it is our antidote to blaming foreign workers and on a pan European level it is our answer to the present limitations of the EU. For those of us who wish to remain we need to use the existing European wide union and political institutions and networks to campaign not only to democratise the EU but also to fight for our Europe a social Europe. Our starting point however is to ensure we stay in.