Denis MacShane is a former Minister of Europe and was a Labour MP for 18 years.
In a major shift on Brexit, Britain’s trade unions have come out definitively for staying in the EU’s single market. This will help persuade the Labour Party’s leadership and uncertain Labour MPs that they can come off the fence, as trade union party activists and trade union member voters are now being told that quitting the single market would be a disaster for jobs, wages and workers’ rights.
The TUC has outlined five tests which it says must be met in its report Putting Brexit to the Test. These include trading with the rest of Europe “so that businesses do not pull out of the UK, and continue to invest here in the creation of high quality jobs”; protecting the Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland; and ensuring that British workers will continue to enjoy any new increases in European social rights.
There has been continuous discussion on Brexit within the TUC. Individual unions have taken different positions, with some expressing concern about the volume and velocity of workers arriving from EU members states.
All Labour MPs have to be trade union members. What’s more, the current left-wing Labour leadership is much closer to trade unions than many in the New Labour generation of the Tony Blair era. This is a signal for Labour to openly back staying in the single market.
As Frances O’Grady, the TUC General Secretary, explains: “Membership of the broader European Economic Area (EEA) would mean we can leave the EU but keep the benefits of the single market. It’s still the only current option we see that passes the tests for working people.
“We’ll listen to other ideas that could meet our tests. But time is running out, and ministers have not yet put forward a realistic alternative.”
In fact, the best alternative to paying out £50 billion and hoping that right-wing Tory MPs will not use domestic law to weaken workers rights is to stay in the EU. EEA membership would retain the benefits of the single market, but we would become rule-takers rather than rule-makers with a voice at the EU table.
However, most trade unions are not yet ready to cross this Rubicon. Nonetheless O’Grady’s call to keep the benefits of the single market by staying in the EEA is a long way from where Labour MPs and many trade union general secretaries were in the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote.
As she says: “We need a Brexit that puts working people first. But ministers are playing Russian roulette with people’s jobs, rights and livelihoods. Instead of sticking rigidly to red lines that rule out the best deal for working people, ministers should go back to the drawing board.
“The government must keep all options on the table, including remaining in the single market through the EEA. Otherwise their reckless strategy could make Brexit a disaster for working people across the UK.”