Britain: A chance for the trade unions to lead the EU referendum debate

For a socialist, working class no campaign

Although the majority of trade unions support the idea of a so-called ’social Europe’ they have often opposed, at least on paper, the reality of European Union (EU) policies and not all of them have a formal position on the EU referendum. With Unison announcing a branch consultation on the issue, and other unions likely to follow suit, there is still a chance for the unions to put themselves at the head of a working class leave campaign. If the unions did so, argues Socialist Party executive member Clive Heemskerk, it could transform the situation in Britain.

The Unison public sector trade union, Britain’s second largest union, is holding a branch consultation on what position it should take in June’s EU referendum.

The union has policy on EU-related issues, for example opposing the EU-US Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), which would accelerate the corporate takeover of the public services its members work in, including the NHS. But as the branch consultation document says, this is the "first time in a generation that trade unions need to consider what the issues important to workers and trade unionists are" on the question of EU membership itself.

’Social Europe’

The document makes clear that the Unison leadership, under general secretary Dave Prentis, still clings to the idea that a ’social Europe’ is possible.

They define this as "a society that combines economic growth with high living standards and good working conditions, best exemplified by the Nordic countries such as Denmark, Sweden and Norway".

That Norway is not a member of the EU seems to have escaped the authors’ attention. And also, more importantly, the fact that the ’Nordic model’, based on the unique circumstances of the post-war economic boom, is long gone.

The Economist magazine in 2013 even went so far as to praise the Nordic countries for carrying out a "silent revolution" (a counter-revolution in reality), with Sweden’s public spending as a proportion of GDP slashed from 67% in 1993 to 49% in 2013.

With the massive scaling back of the welfare state, private companies running schools, elderly homes and nurseries, and transport fully deregulated, they concluded that the late neoliberal economist Milton Friedman "would be more at home in Stockholm than in Washington, DC".

Many of the legal gains for workers claimed for ’socialEurope’ are in fact the product of workers’ struggle, in Britain and in Europe. And the document is forced to recognise that "in other cases" EU regulations have been used to "stop strike action against EU companies that operate in more than one country" and to stop interference "with the right of a company in another EU country to bid to bring in a lower-paid workforce" for public contracts.

With a new economic downturn a growing prospect, ending the anaemic ’recovery’ from the 2007-08 financial crisis and subsequent recession, the ’social Europe’ aspects of the EU will be even more curtailed.

Agency of austerity

While the Unison leadership would clearly like to steer the consultation to a remain position, the document is obliged to reflect union members’ enormous suspicions of the EU.

"Unison", the document says, "would argue that market mechanisms fail to deliver the public services that countries need". For this reason, it goes on, Unison conferences "have consistently criticised and opposed" the EU treaties and services directives, "based on our beliefs about public services and public spending".

The EU’s "drive towards greater competition, market liberalisation and a downward push on wages" have "real consequences" it says, "seen in countries such as Portugal, Spain, Italy and most particularly Greece, where living standards are drastically cut, and public services slashed, while public assets are privatised".

The document points to the EU’s role "in liberalising markets and encouraging competition in energy, transport and postal services. It has also restricted companies receiving public subsidies through state aid rules".

There can be no other conclusion to draw but that the EU is an agency of austerity. The document admits that neoliberal policies have "become embedded in a series of treaties that govern the economic activity of EU states".

The Dave Prentis leadership only pays lip service to the basic socialist propositions against ’market mechanisms’, in other words capitalism, that are reflected in Unison policy positions on the EU. But even so, how can they suggest that trade unionists should give a vote of confidence to the EU’s ’embedded austerity’ by voting to remain?

Project Fear

The answer lies in the constant references in the document to ’what the Tories would do’ if Britain was outside the EU, a tailored version of the capitalist establishment’s ’Project Fear’ campaign to try and secure a remain vote.

"Unison does not believe that the current UK government can be trusted with the protection of our workers’ rights", is one example. But ’EU law’ has not stopped the Tories’ Trade Union Bill, the attack on unfair dismissal rights, or any of the attacks on social gains like the bedroom tax, never mind the savage attacks on workers’ rights in Greece. The working class will always have to fight tenaciously for its interests under the capitalist system, whether the EU treaties are in place or not.

There is also an implicit argument that it will be ’business as usual’ for Cameron or a new Tory leader if the government loses the referendum. But what happened after the fall of Margaret Thatcher is instructive.

The trigger for her removal was the split in the Tory party over Europe, when Geoffrey Howe resigned in November 1990. But the backdrop, not dissimilar to the discontent with austerity now, was the burning rage at the poll tax, reflected in the mass non-payment movement led by Militant, the predecessor of the Socialist Party.

Thatcher’s successor, John Major, was forced to pump £4.3 billion into local government funding (around £7 billion in today’s terms) to finance the abolition of the poll tax, as he attempted to secure his base.

But he was permanently weakened by the split, in a more favourable economic and political context than now, hamstrung by the Tory Maastricht rebels despite winning a bigger majority in 1992 than the Tories have today.

Would Cameron or his successor, if the Tory party holds together, be in a more powerful position?

A defeat for the capitalist establishment, which is what a leave vote would be, will completely shake up the political situation, with new parliamentary alignments or an early general election all as possible outcomes.

But the unions, or at least a substantial body of them, must take a lead. The Unison document says it "is not impressed" with "the main Remain and Leave campaigns", as "the Remain campaign ignores the threats in the current EU to social Europe, public services and workers’ rights" and "the Leave camp is concentrating mainly on issues of migration, asylum and eligibility for state benefits". So why not have an independent working class campaign?

It was a big mistake for Jeremy Corbyn to abandon his past position on the EU to try and appease the Blairite majority in the Parliamentary Labour Party by supporting a ’critical in’ vote.

He won’t stop the pro-capitalist Labour right moving against him when they feel they can but in the meantime, unless the trade unions step in, working class voters against the EU will be left in the hands of Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage.


There is a clear danger that the labour movement will repeat the mistake made in 2011, after the 750,000-strong TUC march against austerity, the biggest organised working class demon-stration in British history.

Six weeks later Ukip organised a ’rally for cuts’, with Farage and ’Eurosceptic’ Tories speaking, that mobilised just a few hundred. That was the real balance of forces in the first year of the Con-Dem government.

But the leadership of the big unions, including Unison, threw it away, both industrially – when they retreated after the 30 November pension strikes of that year – and politically, by refusing to discuss any alternative to Labour as it stuck to the austerity consensus.

This allowed Ukip to partially fill the vacuum. That must not happen again.

Blocking the right

The unions could stop the leave campaign being dominated by the reactionary right. The EU referendum legislation allows the Electoral Commission to choose who shall become the ’official’ Remain and Leave campaigns, bestowing them with political ’authority’ but also substantial public resources.

But the Electoral Commission is not obliged to designate an official campaign, which is why the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) has a petition to the Commission not to give taxpayers money to Ukip and Tory EU campaigners (see

If the only outcome of the Unison consultation is that the union pressures the Electoral Commission not to hand public funds and media platforms to Ukip et al, that would be a significant blow to the right.

Why should the ordination of reactionary pro-austerity politicians as the representatives of working class anti-austerity leave voters be allowed to go unchallenged?

But a greater prize is possible. The unions still have the chance to put themselves at the head of a working class leave campaign that could transform the situation in Britain.

Don’t exaggerate EU powers

The Socialist Party opposes the EU because of its laws and institutions. While they could not stop a determined workers’ government supported by a mass movement from carrying out socialist policies, they are another hurdle to overcome, with real consequences for the day-to-day struggles to defend working class interests.

But there is a danger of exaggerating the EU’s powers. The Morning Star, the paper under the political influence of the Communist Party of Britain, recently carried an editorial headed, ’EU membership bars socialism’.

It argued that "socialism and even Keynesian socialdemocracy cease to be options available to voters" in elections "because socialist measures themselves such as renationalising industries or intervening directly in the economy are illegal" (22 February).

This gives a completely wrong direction to the struggle for socialism. What, for example, the Syriza government in Greece lacked was not legal ’permission’ to implement socialist policies like nationalisation of the banks but a programme, and the will to carry it out, to overturn capitalism.

In other words, in strongly campaigning for a leave vote, the key task is to help the working class build its own independent party, with socialist policies and a clear internationalist position, to defeat pro-capitalist politicians ’at home’ as much as in Brussels.

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March 2016