The two years of Brexit negotiations have been dominated by delay and indecision as politicians struggle to deliver the consequences of the 2016 result. The unrelenting ticking of the Article 50 clock makes 2019, inescapably, the year in which this indecision must end.
Despite the gravity of the situation many politicians, from across the spectrum, continue to cling to the EU-related myths. Conservatives steadfastly refuse to engage with the economic and social consequences of their immigration proposals. Business groups and unions are united in condemning these plans, especially the divisive salary threshold plan which would have a devastating effect in areas such as science and research. Earning under £30,000 does not make someone ‘low-skilled’, and all the evidence demonstrates that a threshold set at this level would deprive both public and private sectors of highly qualified talent from across Europe, and have a significant negative economic impact. Unfortunately, the government is not particularly interested in evidence and the result is a system based on spurious dogma, rather than solid analysis.
The recent public outcry at the launch of the unjust Settled Status scheme demonstrates that people are often not as opposed to immigration in practice as they are in theory. More and more employers are now backing Prospect’s call to pay the fee for their EU citizen employees, but it is time for the government to agree to drop the charge altogether. At the very least they could agree to pay the Settled Status fees of all government employees from the EU, who are working overtime to deliver Brexit. After all, the soundbite was supposed to be ‘We want you to stay’ not ‘we want you to pay’.
It is important to remember that Brexit confusion takes many forms, and that includes the dangerous folly of ‘Lexit’. The EU is not perfect, it needs more social and less capital, but it is baffling to hear arguments that leaving Europe would be good for workers. The core idea behind Lexit seems to be that EU state aid rules prevent a truly left-wing economic agenda and that the EU is a capitalist club. However, even ignoring the fact that some form of state aid restrictions would still apply to the UK in any trade deal struck with the EU, this is total nonsense. For example, EU state aid rules would not prevent the nationalisation programme outlined in Labour’s 2017 manifesto.
The fallacy of Lexit lies in the simple truth that EU rules are not an impediment to economic justice, rather they are a bulwark for the rights and freedoms of working people across the continent. The very idea of joining together with our neighbours is one of solidarity. As Jacques Delors told the TUC in a speech to the TUC Congress over 30 years ago, a social Europe is about improving workers’ rights and the quality of life for all. You only have to listen to the recent hints from the foreign secretary about turning Britain into a so-called ‘Singapore style’ economy, to remember that for many on the right, Brexit is about deregulation and cutting standards.
With all that we know about the risks to jobs, employment rights and barriers to trade from leaving the EU, there is no credible left-wing case for a fortress Britain.
We should not make decisions about Brexit based on short-term calculations about the result of the next general election. Maybe a general election will usher in a progressive government mindful of workers’ rights, but what about the election after that, or the one after that? And what if Labour didn’t win? Recent electoral history does not point towards an uninterrupted period of political office for a party committed to worker, consumer and environmental standards and regulation. Tomorrow’s workers need today’s politicians to fight for them, and that means ditching false arguments about Brexit.
So, here are some truths: Low and stagnant pay is not caused by EU nationals but by poor government policy and the reduction in collective bargaining. The UK economy relies on the skills and contribution of EU nationals, who are our neighbours, co-workers and colleagues. The Single Market hardwires into trade, employment rights, regulation and environmental standards that are integral to trade union demands. Anything short of Single Market membership, as the TUC has said, will damage jobs. If we Brexit in the expectation we will deliver better employment rights and regulation than we have managed in the EU then for me the lessons of 40 years of UK employment law have been entirely missed.
In 2019 we must ditch meaningless Brexit slogans based on hopeless optimism in favour of evidence and reality. There is no sunny upland ‘Lexit’ future, no ‘jobs first Brexit’, no ‘Brexit that works for the many’. There is currently a Brexit formulation that will enable a resurgence of the ascendancy of capital over labour when we need exactly the opposite in the UK.
There is also no majority in parliament for the deal that has been negotiated, and no majority support for that deal in the country. And most importantly, there is no time left.
Resolving this final problem is the priority for parliament. The clock must not be allowed to run down so the only choice is a deal that satisfies nobody or a No Deal by default. This is no way to consider our national interest or economic future. Politicians need to get real about Brexit and extend Article 50 now.
The only way of breaking the parliamentary deadlock and securing a legitimate outcome is to offer the public a choice between leaving on the terms the government has negotiated (with any last minute additions that may arise) or staying in. These are the only concrete proposals on the table, and if parliament cannot choose between them then it is time to give the public the final say. It is time for politicians to stop second-guessing the public on Brexit, and simply ask them what they think. The ‘May’ leave deal or stay in? Time to decide once and for all.
Mike Clancy is the general secretary of Prospect