Since the EU referendum, it has often been said that one of the key challenges our country faces is a shortage of skilled negotiators who can make our exit a success. There is nobody used to sitting round a bargaining table, we are told. Nobody familiar with the involved rhythm of give and take. Nobody capable of striking a good deal on behalf of the country.
Well, if Britain needs good negotiators, ministers should have picked up the phone to the trade union movement. Getting a good deal is our life force. Each year, thousands of trade union reps get around a bargaining table to thrash out a deal. And the starting point for any trade union officer is that you don’t enter a negotiation without first having a clear idea of what the people you are representing actually want.
Yet politics today seems more interested in rhetoric and internal party battles than it does with expertise or a pragmatic approach about what is best for Britain. The stakes could not be higher in many of the industries that my union has members.
At our conference in Birmingham this week we heard about the anxiety of the nuclear industry that the government has pulled us out of vital nuclear safeguarding arrangements without adequate plans to replace them. They have heard the despair of scientists at being shut out of pan-European projects because of uncertainty about future UK participation. And they have heard the anger from workers in every sector of our economy about the terrible situation of EU citizens and their families, placed in an impossible position by a government that has disgracefully tried to use them as a bargaining chip in the negotiations.
The Trades Union Congress and Confederation of British Industry are right that only a jobs-first approach to Brexit is one that will minimise risks to trade, investment and collaboration with our European colleagues. Our members would add concerns about employment rights, environmental standards and the UK’s crucial role as a hub for international science and research. The proposal urging Prospect to take a tougher position against a hard Brexit was moved by members from Northern Ireland, where questions around the border with Ireland are a daily worry.
A jobs-first approach cannot mean a hard Brexit. It cannot mean tariffs on trade or a race to the bottom on rights and standards just to undercut prices. As one of Britain’s largest private sector unions, our members are all too aware of the impact uncertainty has on the health of the economy, prosperity and investment. The evidence backs this up with the latest estimate from the Bank of England showing that UK households are already around £900 worse off as a result of the vote to leave, and that growth is set to be sluggish for years to come.
That is why I am not surprised that Prospect members at our national conference in Birmingham voted this week to back a people’s vote on the final Brexit deal, joining a growing groundswell of opinion across the country demanding a say on how Britain leaves the EU, not just the principle of doing so.
This vote was driven not only by the experience our members have as trade unionists, but by their experience of Brexit repercussions. Whether it is in nuclear regulation, science, air traffic control or the civil service itself, our members have a front row seat for the emerging chaos of the current Brexit strategy.
Prospect is not affiliated to any political party and our political independence is our cornerstone, but our message to all parties is clear: Brexit is too important to get wrong. If Britain wants to forge its way in the world, we need to do so as a high-skilled, productive country that seeks pragmatic, evidence-based solutions to the challenges facing us.
As for government ministers, I have one piece of advice based on my practical experience as a negotiator and trade union representative. No trade union official would enter a negotiation without first seeking a clear mandate from their members. Nor would they ever agree a deal without first allowing their members to vote on it. It is a simple principle really, if you are agreeing a deal on behalf of a group of people then you have a duty to make sure they are happy with the agreement you have negotiated on their behalf. If this rule is good enough for us, then it should be good enough for the government.
By taking a strong position in favour of continued membership of the customs union and single market, unions have led the way in the Brexit debate from the start. As the government continues to be mired in indecision and chaos, we must now, as a movement, show that leadership once again and make the case that this deal must be subject to a final vote so that our members and the wider public can give their view on the most important negotiation for the working people of this country in a generation.
Mike Clancy is the general secretary of the trade union Prospect