Friday 24 June 2016

Responding to the EU Referendum - Len gets it wrong

After a campaign marked by racism, fear-mongering and lies from both the main campaigns, the result is now out - a vote to leave the EU. This isn't the result Unite campaigned for, our union was clearly on the "Remain" side, though (thank goodness) it didn't back the official campaign. Members deserved better than a choice between Cameron, Osborne and Blair on the one hand, or Johnson, Farage and Gove on the other. At least, whichever way we voted, we got to see the two wings of the establishment rightly denouncing each other as liars.

But what now? Given the views of the leaders of the Leave camp, and Project Fear run by the Remain camp, little wonder that many fear for the future. We certainly face a couple of years of uncertainty and instability.

Unfortunately the line promoted by the TUC and most unions during the campaign is now coming back to haunt us. We were told that the EU had "given us" most of our rights and that we would be helpless outside the EU. While we have benefited from some EU legislation and European Court of Justice (ECJ) rulings, our rights have been hard-won by workers in the UK and abroad. We have never been helpless and we aren't now.

The referendum took place in a failed attempt to resolve divisions within the Tory Party and with their UKIP splinter, between their pro-EU big-business backers and their little-Englander social base who dreamt of getting their empire back. This context, and the lack of a sizeable left opposition to the EU, meant much of the debate and media coverage was heavily coloured by anti-migrant racism.

The anti-EU right will be trying to build on the result. Both wings of the right will be trying to ensure the discontent articulated through the Leave vote is channelled into more anti-migrant racism and away from the rich and powerful who are really responsible for cuts, poor housing, inadequate services and welfare, crap jobs and unemployment.

So at a time like this it is vital that the labour movement doesn't write off the millions who voted Leave as consistently and incurably racist. We have to offer a positive way to tackle our problems, not give ground to racism.

In this context, Len McCluskey's statement after the referendum result is awful. In amongst some good points he says "Politicians must now respond appropriately and in a way that satisfies the genuinely held concerns of the public. This includes looking at how best to deal with the difficult issue of the free movement of labour and its impact on working people". While being vague and evasive, this panders to the idea that "free movement of labour" is a problem and that it has a negative impact on "working people" (as if the "labour" that is movement is not "working people"!). This is the kind of nonsense that "Blue Labour" have been peddling for years.

In a previous article, McCluskey argued that unions had always tried to control the labour supply. There is some truth in this. But workers have taken different approaches to doing so. On the one hand, some groups of workers have tried to claim priviledged access to certain jobs by excluding others (e.g. women, blacks). Sometimes this appears to get results for a while, if the group has the power to enforce discrimination against others. But it imposes severe limits on potential solidarity by reinforcing rather than overcoming divisions in the working class. The other approach to controlling the labour supply has been by organising workers - across divides of gender, race, skill or origin. It's not easy, but its potential for results is far greater.

Finance capital can move freely across borders at the click of a mouse. Its flows can wreak havoc on workers half way across the globe. Our politicians can send arms, planes, ships and troops to destroy cities.

Is the labour movement going to slide into accepting divisions between workers based on where they happen to have been born? Or are we going to seek to organise workers and challenge those really responsible for our problems. We can't do both and UNITE members need to be demanding that our union comes down clearly on the right side - opposing racism against migrants, defending our right to travel freely, and building solidarity.

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