Is a workers’ Brexit deal possible?

No to EU austerity (photo Paul Mattsson)

The Socialist Party described the Leave vote in 2016 as a revolt against the capitalist establishment, a working-class ‘cry of rage’ against mass poverty and savage austerity while the rich get richer.

A Tory-led Brexit, deal or no deal, will do nothing to solve the causes of that rage. But remaining in the EU also offers no solution to poverty and austerity. On the other hand, overturning the result of the referendum can only stoke the existing anger against the main pro-capitalist parties even further.

The Socialist Party has always opposed the EU as a ‘bosses’ club’:  a set of treaties between different capitalist governments aimed at creating the largest possible arena for multinational companies to maximise their profits with as few barriers as possible.

We have consistently argued for a Brexit deal in the interests of working-class people. In the referendum we argued that there was a responsibility on the shoulders of the leaders of the workers’ movement – the trade unions and the anti-austerity forces around Jeremy Corbyn – to harness that mass anger with an independent pro-working-class, anti-racist, internationalist programme for exiting the EU.

We argued that a vote to leave the EU would have been a shattering blow to Cameron. It could have split the Tory party and led to the fall of the Tory government, hastening the possibility of a Corbyn-led anti-austerity government.

With the exception of the transport unions RMT and Aslef, and the Bakers Union, the leaderships of the trade unions failed to rise to the challenge, and instead left the field to racist, pro-capitalist, right-wing forces to lead the charge for leave.

Jeremy Corbyn’s first capitulation to the Blairites after he won the Labour leadership election in 2015, was to put to one side his longstanding opposition to the EU bosses’ club in order to campaign for Remain. If Corbyn had led an anti-austerity, socialist exit campaign, it would have transformed the debate.

But it is not too late. In fact it is vital. Fighting for an anti-austerity, socialist Brexit in the interests of working-class and young people could overcome the ‘Brexit divide’. In many ways, working-class leave voters and young anti-racist Remain supporters share a complete lack of trust in politicians, a fear about the future and living conditions, and a huge sense of lack of control.

A fight for a ‘workers’ Brexit’ would cut through the attempt of Boris Johnson to be ‘with the people’ against the politicians and expose him for the pro-austerity, pro-capitalist representative of the rich that he is.

A Brexit implemented by a government acting in the interests of the working class would prevent the attacks on living standards and rights that would otherwise inevitably continue after a pro-capitalist Brexit.

General election

It is vital to fight as hard as possible for a general election now, including calling mass action. So, instead of Boris Johnson, or another Tory, going to negotiate with EU representatives – while continuing anti-working class policies at home – it would be Jeremy Corbyn going to negotiate new trade arrangements with the EU, with a mobilised movement of working-class and young people behind him.

Corbyn negotiating with the EU should not mean secret talks behind closed doors. It should be in front of, and accountable to, a mobilised labour and trade union movement.  A workers’ Brexit will not be achieved by ‘clever’ arguments, but by a bold fight backed up by mass meetings, demonstrations and actions.

The EU is not all-powerful. That was demonstrated by the Lindsey oil refinery dispute in 2009. A united struggle of British and Italian workers smashed the posted workers’ directive, which allows businesses to employ workers on the pay and conditions of their home countries rather than those of the country they work in, thus driving down pay.

An appeal to workers across Europe would be crucial. While meeting with EU negotiators, Corbyn should also meet with representatives and address mass meetings of the workers’ movement across Europe. A bold challenge to the EU by Corbyn could have a huge impact with working-class people battling austerity throughout Europe.

What would a workers’ Brexit mean?

It is no wonder the government tried to suppress its official ‘Yellowhammer’ report into what a no-deal exit could mean. While there has been scaremongering, it is undoubtedly the case that a no-deal exit could have harsh consequences in the initial period.

Delays of days at the channel crossings, supply disruptions for medicines and other vital goods, potential prices rises for food, fuel and electricity, potential closures of services that are run by private profit-seeking businesses.

But even if the Tories managed to secure a deal, a pro-capitalist Brexit is not good for workers. Boris Johnson aims to ‘roll out the red carpet’ for American big business, including opening up the NHS to US private health companies. He reportedly plans to push down company tax rates and diverge from EU standards and regulations.

Economic recession looms around the corner, in or out of the EU. The news of big companies collapsing and thousands of workers losing their jobs seems to be almost daily: Wrightbus, Thomas Cook, Honda, British Steel, Ford at Bridgend.

Workers are already having to organise to fight attempts by grasping bosses to cut wages and attack conditions at work, such as in Asda and Sainsbury’s warehouses; attacks on trade union rights such as the construction workers in Hull; bullying management attempting to circumvent agreements made with unions in order to carry out further attacks, such as in Royal Mail. Under the cover of Brexit, how many more companies will threaten closure, job cuts, pay cuts, or attacks on conditions?

No worker should have to pay the price of this crisis. Any business making such threats must open their books to show where the money has gone. Where necessary, companies that threaten closure need to be nationalised, under democratic working-class control and management. That would enable not only the protection of those jobs for current workers but the preservation of decent jobs and skills for future generations and wider society.

EU regulations aim to prevent this necessary action to save jobs, skills, pay and rights. A workers’ Brexit would mean withdrawing from these regulations.

It is true that there are some EU rules which offer some limited protections – such as ‘Tupe’, the Transfer of Undertakings (protection of employment) regulations that offer some protections when workers are transferred between employers. The EU Social Chapter includes some protections, such as the ‘Working Time Directive’, which sets limits on average working time.

But the British government under Thatcher in the 1980s was allowed to ‘opt out’ of the Social Chapter. The ‘protections’ of the EU did nothing to stop the attacks on trade union rights in the Tories’ 2016 Trade Union Act. EU member states that have been bailed out by the EU institutions have suffered the biggest fall in collective bargaining rights in the world – falling by an average of 21% across the ten EU countries hardest hit by the economic crisis.

EU laws include strict rules in the European Fiscal Compact, limiting public spending and government borrowing, thus enforcing austerity. Since the world economic crisis of 2007-8, the institutions of the EU have imposed terrible austerity on Greece in particular, but also Portugal, Ireland and other countries.

EU procurement and competition policies enforce privatisation, including of health services, postal services and transport services. They forbid nationalisation and even restrict state subsidies to companies. When private sector company Carillion collapsed in 2018, Corbyn correctly called out this “outsourcing racket”. EU treaties promote zero-hour contracts, low pay and ‘flexible’ working as part of its structural adjustment programme.

A Brexit in the interests of working-class people would mean maintaining any of the EU regulations that workers would want to keep, and in fact significantly strengthening them – scrapping, for example, all the Tory anti-trade union laws and improving workers’ rights.

But crucially, it would mean scrapping the anti-worker EU laws intended to prevent nationalisation and state intervention, that attempt to enforce austerity and attacks on workers’ rights and living conditions.

These could be used against a Corbyn government which tried to implement the extremely popular measures to renationalise Royal Mail or the railways, to end privatisation and bring back in-house privatised council, government and health services.

Climate change

A workers’ Brexit would also enable serious action to be taken on climate change: nationalising the big energy companies, and investing in the development of renewable technologies. It would enable, where necessary, a transfer of skills from environmentally damaging industries into socially-useful and environmentally sustainable work.

Many people, young people especially, support the EU because they are anti-racist and internationalist. They understandably fear that Brexit is about racism and a ‘little Englander’ outlook. But the EU is not internationalist. EU governments allow refugees to drown in the Mediterranean rather than admit desperate people fleeing war and poverty into Europe.

A workers’ Brexit, on the other hand, would guarantee the right of all those EU citizens working in Britain to be able to continue to do so with full legal rights. Ending the posted workers directive would be a step towards ending the super-exploitation of migrant workers. Guaranteeing all workers the rate for the job – with at least a £12 an hour minimum wage – is also the best way to stop the ‘race to the bottom’, where bosses use low paid migrant workers to try to force overall wages and living standards down.

There should be no illusions, of course, that we simply have to leave the EU and all will be rosy. The EU is not the source of the problem or the main obstacle workers face. It enshrines and enforces austerity and eases things for the bosses. But the reason for austerity, poverty and privation is capitalist crisis and the capitalist profit system itself. In or out the EU the bosses will fight tooth and nail to prevent this programme being implemented.

That is why the fight for policies in working-class interests requires calling working-class and young people to action. A bold programme for jobs, for a million council homes, to rebuild the NHS, for a decent minimum wage and an end to zero-hour contracts, to reduce the working week, end Universal Credit and provide free adult social care and more, as promised at Labour’s conference – can mobilise masses of people for the fight that will be necessary.

A mass movement is needed as a counter-pressure to the pressure of the capitalists, to push a Corbyn-led government to implement its programme and go further – to nationalise the banks and main parts of the economy in order to democratically plan the use of the vast wealth in society in the interests of all.

Combined with a bold appeal to workers across Europe – for example, proposing economic cooperation that would ensure workers’ protections, pay and pensions, and that would allow public ownership of the banks and major companies in Europe – this would be real internationalism.

A worker-led Brexit would be an enormous blow to capitalism across Europe. If the institutions of capitalism can be broken, why stop there? This would be the basis of a movement to fight to overthrow capitalism in different European countries and fight for a socialist Europe, in place of the capitalist, pro-austerity bosses’ club that is the EU.


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