Brexit is turning into a “nightmare” with the shadow of job losses hanging over British industry because of the government’s handling of negotiations to leave the EU, a union leader has warned.
Len McCluskey, general secretary of Unite, said prime minister Theresa May had lost all authority or capacity to make decisions.
He told the union’s policy conference in Brighton: “She is held prisoner by the dogmatists and fantasists of the far right.
“These people see in Brexit the chance to turn Britain into the low-wage, deregulated, race-to-the-bottom society of their dreams.
“But Brexit is turning into a nightmare for the rest of us – a nightmare of uncertainty above all.
“The shadow of job losses is hanging over much of the British economy, including the jobs of tens of thousands of Unite members.”
Mr McCluskey said it was urgent that the Labour Party and trade union movement come together around an alternative to the Conservatives’ plans.
He said: “Labour has started to do that with Jeremy Corbyn’s call for Britain to stay in a customs union with the EU.
“And to have access to, not membership of, a tariff-free single market, as well as his opposition to any hard border dividing Ireland once more.
“Labour has the chance to speak for the whole country in resisting the catastrophic hard Brexit the Tories have in store.”
It is not clear how Britain would gain access to the EU’s single market without being a member of it.
Mr McCluskey said Unite was not calling for a second referendum but, like the Labour Party, remained open to the possibility of a vote on any deal the Tories come back with.
He added: “Our movement needs to speak with a single voice in opposition to the Tory cliff-edge Brexit in support of jobs, workers’ rights and equality for all, removing the concerns that many of our members have, and in also offering hope to those who backed Brexit out of despair.”
The conference is debating Brexit.
At the start of what will be a lengthy debate, some delegates said there should be a public vote on the final Brexit deal.
Brenda Daly-Collie said there was a fundamental union principle that after a deal was negotiated, it was put to members.
Raffiq Moose agreed, saying: “When we negotiate a pay rise for our members we take it back to them.”
Pat McGill, a convener at a Siemens plant in Lincoln, warned of job losses because of the impact on trade.
Work was already being moved to other European countries, he said, adding: “There is a pattern emerging which is worrying.
“A trickle of jobs moving to the EU could become a torrent when we leave.”
London bus driver Joanne Harris said she knew of workers who were now worried about going on holiday for fear of not being allowed back into the country.
She said: “The government’s handling of Brexit shows how uncaring and self-serving it has become.”
Unite’s executive issued a statement saying it was “highly unlikely” that the final Brexit deal will satisfy the union or Labour.
“We are open to the possibility of a popular vote being held on any deal, depending on political circumstances,” it said.
The delegates accepted the executive’s statement, rejecting calls to tie the union to a policy of making sure the public has a binding vote on the final Brexit deal.
The executive attacked the government’s “abysmal” handling of the Brexit process which it warned had made the prospect of a cliff edge, no-deal Brexit a genuine possibility.
Michael Graham, Unite’s convener at the Jaguar Land Rover plant in Solihull, said: “If I conducted myself in such a shambolic manner I would be out of a job.”
In January The New European named Mr McCluskey as the man who could stop Brexit in its list of the most influential people.
Eloise Todd, CEO of the anti-Brexit campaign group Best for Britain, said: “It’s to be applauded that Britain’s biggest union, representing over 1.4 million people, has debated the incredibly vital issue of the people having the final say on the Brexit deal. ‘Unite will keep the door open to a people’s vote, and this is a very welcome step in the right direction. But we mustn’t wait until it is too late to take action. Len McCluskey rightly recognised earlier today that hundreds of thousands of job losses are hanging over much of the British economy. “That’s why the decision on the final Brexit deal must be put back in the hands of ordinary people so that they can decide what’s best for their own families’ future.”