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ZOE WILLIAMS: The shifting trade unions are striking back on Brexit

People gather to protest against British prime minister Boris Johnson's policies on Brexit and the prorogation of parliament. Picture: Ray Tang/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images - Credit: Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The trade unions are shifting on Brexit, says ZOE WILLIAMS. And that can only be a good thing for the cause.

I have a couple of problematic allergies that I believe have adversely affected my career. They’re all to words; it’s worse than that. They’re all the words that make up the processes of deliberative democracy on the left: composite motion; national executive committee; affiliation; cooption; congress.

They send me into a catatonic state, so I never understand how unions reach the positions they do, nor why that matters to the wider scheme of things, all I see is Len McCluskey popping up every couple of months to tell Remainers to pipe down and take their medicine.

But this matters: if the unions shift en masse over Brexit, it will affect Labour’s position at its conference in Brighton this month, and affect what goes in the manifesto for the coming election.

Unions have organisational capacity, local and sectoral knowledge, and money, which in the coming election, made of fire and ice, chaos and spleen, the only certainty being that nobody’s ready for it, could be both decisive and civilising.

And they have shifted: at the TUC conference at the weekend, they passed a composite motion that went beyond opposing no-deal, beyond establishing solidarity with migrant workers, and with Northern Ireland in the preservation of the Good Friday Agreement, beyond criticising Donald Trump.

It crescendoed: “Congress will continue campaigning for reforms to help build a Europe for the many through solidarity across borders”.

It was the clearest signal yet, not that they note the value of EU membership in pragmatic terms, but that they place internationalism at the heart of their movement. Only the RMT voted against.

Unionists are very practical beasts. In 2016, there was very little resistance to the Brexit vote: many of their members had voted Leave.

All the interest and energy was in making Brexit work for workers, reinforcing rights ahead of departing the shared European institutions that had forged them, and protecting manufacturing and agriculture. That allied with the Labour party’s stance, that there was no point fighting Brexit, all the fight had to go into making the Best Possible Brexit.

The two exceptions to this were, first, the TSSA, headed by Manuel Cortes, which recognised from the beginning that Brexit was a far-right project, for which there was no ‘best’, from a progressive perspective.

The architects of Leave had dreamt it up for the precise purpose of eroding workplace rights and setting citizens against one another with whispered xenophobia. To be fair, though, many people even in the Leave campaign didn’t immediately cotton on to this.

The second were the Musicians’ Union which – fittingly, I think – understood that the purpose of Brexit was discord, and resisted it from the start, in the interests of harmony.

They made many pragmatic points on behalf of musicians, who need freedom of movement, the cross-pollination of creativity, but made this gestalt point to the TUC conference: “Music represents the very opposite of what this prime minister stands for. He wants to divide the country and exploit the Brexit split. Music brings people together across divides and across borders – including on the island of Ireland. Music is needed more than ever.”

If you’d heard that when Article 50 had just been revoked, you would have thought, “who are these ridiculous people, who think by appealing to the beauty of the human soul, they can stop this inexorable political process?”

It would have been like trying to stop a juggernaut with a chocolate eclair. And yet, time has borne them out: because, whatever you think about Brexit, it is its unmusical elements, its deliberate discord, its destructiveness, its lack of imagination, its thuggishness, that has torn it apart.

It is a useful humility to remember that Leavers have been far more effective in unspooling their own arguments than any of us who steadfastly opposed them.

These, by the way, are titchy unions: the MU has 31,000 members, the TSSA 22,000.

They have nothing like the institutional muscle of the major players, Unite, Unison, the GMB, and such power as they exerted was all of their persuasion.

What they did was to keep open that space in the discourse where remaining in the EU wasn’t a pipe dream, nor was it an option to be explored instrumentally for electoral advantage, but as a position based on values and vision: in the broadest possible terms, the case for Remain rooted in a socialist understanding of the world as it is, and the world as it could be. This is the ground which more and more trades unionists have come to inhabit.

As parliament became more entrenched, unions, especially burrowing into the detail at a regional and sectoral level, became more questioning.

It has been fascinating to watch that divide open up, since it really flags the difference between people who know very little and people who know a lot, and care even more.

The Conservatives, especially, have revealed comical ignorance over the blighted Brexit period – how close France is to Britain, how complicated Irish politics is – but a complete and unabashed cluelessness about trade deals has been more widespread still, with Brexiters on the left labouring under similar misconceptions about the EU’s regulatory framework and 
the implications for workers’ rights outside it, and what WTO rules actually entail.

Meanwhile, there actually aren’t many people – as Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the TUC, once pointed out and shouldn’t have had to – who know more about trade deals than trades unionists.

There is a kind of cultural misconception that pervades and emphatically doesn’t suit our times: that because Conservatives are pro-business, and unions are pro-workers, then the right is good at pragmatism and the left is good at dreaming.

On Brexit, the opposite holds: the Conservatives jettison realities faster than they do prime ministers, while the union movement has had to think through really seriously, sector by sector, worker by worker, what each of Brexit’s various iterations would look like.

By the middle of last year, regional representatives were saying, ‘let’s hit pause on Article 50: there simply isn’t the time to resolve the differences in a way that wouldn’t be destructive to manufacturing, in particular, and the economy in general’.

They were also finding their spine – and in this they significantly exceeded the Labour Party – on the matter of their migrant members, who deserved representation, protection and solidarity.

They were still very careful not to overreach themselves, and not to fall into the trap of taking a strong position that a fair portion of their membership might disagree with.

But they were unflinching in their analyses; so Unison started to point out very trenchantly what leaving the EU might mean for women’s rights in the workplace (their members are predominantly female), while the GMB started to move strongly against no-deal (and was instrumental in smoothing the way for the TSSA motion that has just passed).

The exception, of course, has always been Unite: Len McCluskey made the calculation early on that you could either fight for a Corbyn government, or you could fight Brexit, but you couldn’t do both.

On those terms, his judgment was understandable: from the point of view of the movement overall, the fight for a Labour government is more important than whether or not we remain members of the European Union.

The problem is, it turned out to be a false binary: you have to fight for both, not because Corbyn can’t win without the Remain vote (though this is also true), but because Brexit itself, as we’ve seen, is a right-wing fever dream, for hedge fund managers and free market fundamentalists, for the people who crave Singapore-in-the-Sea, in their peculiar alliance with those who wish Britannia still ruled the waves.

It cannot, whatever turmoil it unleashes in any of its forms, usher in a socialist utopia; that is simply not the way it is oriented.

When you can’t say for certain that the prime minister will uphold the rule of law, it is hard to make clear predications on anything else: but assuming constitutional crisis is averted and the party conferences go ahead, and assuming – as I think we can – that an election will happen before 2019 is out, Labour will decide its manifesto position on Brexit in the next two weeks.

They are already committed to another referendum with Remain on the ballot. John McDonnell is committed to taking no-deal off the ballot, and the shadow cabinet to campaigning for Remain. As the idea of a Labour deal, to replace Theresa May’s, becomes more and more ludicrous (forge a deal of your own, then campaign against it? Seriously?), Lexit offers its last gasp: on Tuesday night, Len Mccluskey led the charge to push Labour into the position of campaigning for a public vote, but not openly for Remain. He thinks, probably, that this is seismic; certainly the shadow cabinet is furious. But it is not: unions have posed the questions, what kind of Europe do we want to see, what does that mean for the future we want and how does that chime with who we are? The answers will defy this petty manoeuvring.

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