Letters to the Editor. The EU Referendum.
In his article on the European Referendum in last month’s Labour Affairs, Mark Cowling points to the fact that many European trade unions advocate social partnership and industrial policy, positions long advocated by Labour Affairs. He thinks it strange that Labour Affairs cannot endorse remaining in a political entity in which these views appear to be popular and influential. European trade unions are champions of these policies.
The problem is that the British trade unions have shown no interest in these policies. Instead they have shown continual contempt for them. British trade unions have been well aware of how European trade unions operate and have no desire to emulate them. They have done nothing to support them and Britain remains an outlier for such policies within the whole of the EU. Only a couple of Eastern European and Mediterranean countries have a worse record, as the TUC’s own research shows.
In Ireland, British trade unions come into continuous contact with Irish trade unions, which have a more European orientation. The British-based unions take every opportunity to undermine social partnership initiatives undertaken by the Irish trade unions. They are actually a hindrance to the policies that Labour Affairs and Mark Cowling support.
The TUC is different. We published an interview with Frances O’Grady nearly two years ago, in which she clearly argued for a trade unionism which engaged with the business of governing industry and the state? Jim Larkin jr. of Ireland was explicitly mentioned as a role model for the kind of trade unionism that she envisaged. What has been the reaction from the trade union movement? ‘A complete ignoral’ in Ernest Bevin’s words! In 2014 a motion passed at the GMB conference advocating industrial democracy and social partnership was scuppered by that union’s leadership. Actions speak a great deal louder than words and 44 years of membership of the EU have shown clearly that British trade unions are intent on digging themselves into the same hole that they always have been digging into. Mark need only look to the behaviour of his own union, UCU, to see ample evidence of this.
Of course there are exceptions, some of the TUC leadership and the leadership of ATL and under Eamonn O’Kane, NAS/UWT are examples of good union practice. Unionlearn, under the guidance of the TUC does some excellent work. But the overall picture of British trade unions is that they are like the Bourbons after the French Revolution – they have learned nothing and forgotten nothing. They will only have a negative influence on European trade unionism. Jeremy Corbyn and Frances O’Grady are quite right to draw attention to the social protections afforded to workers under EU legislation. But these have to be fought for and extended. If British trade unions want to have all this on a plate and do nothing for it, then they are not going to contribute either to the welfare of British workers or to those in Europe. European trade unionism will, sadly, be better off without them – something they probably realise already.
Mark Cowling’s case for Remain is based on the benefits that will ‘trickle down’ to the UK working class from continuing membership of the EU. By a kind of osmosis there will be advantages for the British working class in continuing membership. However this is not one way traffic. There are also influences on the European working class from continuing UK membership. And they are all negative. The British working class has taken from the EU but what has it given or what has it to give to the European working class? I can’t think of any positive benefits on offer to Europe. It’s a case of ask not what the UK can do for the EU but what the EU can for the UK.
40 years ago the British working class was able to control society but it proved only a negative control and could not convert itself into a positive control. As a result if fell before Thatcherism. The British working class learned nothing from the EU in those decades. And the only example it set for the EU and the world in those decades was how to lose the class struggle.
That loss was illustrated very well in the last issue’s editorial and the Froggy piece of Labour Affairs. The position of the steelworkers today in the UK and Germany were compared and the UK position was pathetic. And the proposed new Labour Law in France is openly promoted as Blairite – a British labour contribution to Europe! The EU working has not suffered such disastrous defeats in recent decades so what has the UK working class to offer it at the present time?
Labour and the Unions have totally supported Cameron’s ‘reformed EU’ mantra. That is plainly a policy of less EU not more and less EU means more neo-liberal and more anti working class policies. The fact of the matter is that the Labour movement from Gaitskell on the Right to Michael Foot and Benn on the Left treated the EU with contempt when it was developing and the UK Labour movement has never appreciated the point of the EU.
The choice is between the EU developing or being held back by the UK. There is no in-between. It is like trying to mix oil and water. That is the issue in the referendum and it will continue long after the referendum.
The UK working class must learn from its recent disastrous experiences and design a way forward. Looking to anything outside itself to do so is pointless and will prevent it from creating a way forward. Only when it does so by learning from its own experience will it be of any use to itself and then possibly to Europe.
Mark Cowling is right to say that the concessions won by David Cameron make little difference to the conditions of UK membership of the EU (“The concessions are cosmetic rather than real.”). He is wrong however to imply that the EU (previously the EEC) has prevented conflict and war on the European continent. This places Mark in the company of Cameron who ludicrously stated that a Brexit could lead to a reoccurrence of instability and possible war between EU nation states. It is impossible to imagine that one or more of the 6 EU/non-Nato member states would launch an attack on one or more of the 22 EU/NATO member states. Perhaps Cameron intended to say that the UK’s presence in Europe has a stabilising effect and should it leave it may have to go back in to sort out the mess that would ensue. But thanks largely to the UK, the EU is not one, big happy family and continuing UK membership under a divided Tory government is likely to create further disharmony and instability, without leading to actual military conflict