I’ve been in a lot of negotiations over the years. I know what a good deal looks like. I know how getting from point A to point B works. I’m not sure I need to spell this out, at this stage, but our Brexit negotiations are not going well. Alarm bells are starting to ring, not just for trade unionists, but for employers and entire sectors.
I am not an uncritical enthusiast of the European Union. I voted ‘remain’ but I saw the flaws. I didn’t want to vote for the status quo but, on balance, the risk to jobs and rights in the UK was too great to take such a risk. Those fears are being played out.
The biggest failure so far has been of the government’s own making. Theresa May’s early decision to choose to leave the Customs Union has set a ticking time bomb underneath many workplaces especially in manufacturing. The Prime Minister has not once sat down and genuinely listened to both employers and trade unions about the challenges her approach would present for each sector. The irony was that at the point the government claimed to now support the idea of an industrial strategy, they failed to hear all those with a stake in the success of UK industry on the single biggest economic issue of our time.
As we know Ministers didn’t publish impact assessments on their preferred form of Brexit and worse still, they didn’t even commission them until their inactivity was dragged out of them by select committee chairs. Ministers seem petrified at the inconvenient truth that some of their preferred plans would jeopardise decent, skilled, well-paid jobs. The reality is it won’t be pin-striped suited Tories at Westminster who will personally pay the price of leaving the Customs Union, but our members grafting in ports, factories and warehouses throughout our manufacturing industries.
There is, of course, concern and a lot of attention at the prospect of what tariffs could mean on a range of industries. They could harm the competitiveness of many goods we import and export, not least in the food and drink manufacturing sector. But this is not the only problem. The extra delays at ports ill-equipped to deal with new customs arrangements will be costly. 40% of the UK’s imports and exports are through the Port of Dover or the Channel Tunnel and the possibility of delays and regular gridlock could provide real and regular harm to supply chains across the country.
Less well discussed is the fact that many industries within the Customs Union have developed a clear and consistent set of common standards throughout Europe over the years from everything from transporting nuclear materials to ensuring consistent regulations for importing and exporting of chemicals. It should be obvious that we can’t afford to diverge from these arrangements or lower standards but the government has not provided enough assurances.
We might mock Donald Trump’s doomed desire to build a wall between Mexico and the USA but, closer to home, our own government’s Brexit plans risk building hard borders of their own, not least between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. GMB has members on both sides of the border in Ireland where 30,000 people cross the border to commute to work each day. The food and drink manufacturing industry provides valuable employment and wages to support local economies in the north and the south. The government’s current proposed solutions are either unproven and untested anywhere on Earth or a ‘a complete fantasy’, depending on who you listen to.
It is breath-taking to witness a government that was so obsessed with cutting ‘red-tape’ in the workplace, a few years back, when that involved undermining workplace rights, yet now wants to trigger the biggest avalanche of genuine red-tape in a generation. The Tories once prided itself on the economy, yet it has its fingers permanently in its ears when asked about the likely consequences of its Brexit economic policies.
The EU is by far the biggest export market for every region and nation. Our supply chains crisscross with other EU countries and unpicking this won’t be at all straight forward or always feasible. Multinational companies with a big stake in European markets could find it easier to increase their investment in EU countries within the Customs Union and avoid all the hassle. GMB will stand up to defend our members’ jobs every step of the way, but the government’s behaviour is making it harder to protect livelihoods. A commitment to negotiating to be part of a Customs Union would give the green light to UK-based manufacturers to stay, invest and recruit.
Labour’s stance on negotiating participation in a Customs Union is absolutely right and is supported by many in industry and trade unions including GMB. We have a significant manufacturing sector in the UK employing over 2.5 million people and providing over £100 billion of earnings each year. A vote for a Customs Union would, in reality, be a vote of confidence for UK workers and our manufacturing industry. I call on all MPs from all parties to support this. We want UK manufacturing to continue to play in the economic Champions League, but we can only qualify for this if our team is in a Customs Union.