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20 November 2019updated 09 Jul 2021 7:14am

Labour is looking for something that doesn’t exist on workers’ rights and Brexit

By Stephen Bush

The two most important things about the Withdrawal Agreement Bill is that, firstly, the United Kingdom will leave the European Union on 31 January, and, secondly, that the British government will spend the next phase of the Brexit talks the same way it did the first: negotiating against the backdrop of a ticking clock, because the British government will make it illegal to seek an extension to the transition period.

Boris Johnson’s promise to deliver Brexit by the end of 2020, which means that he has a year to complete his negotiations with the EU – trade talks usually take far longer, in large part because both sides delay things by insisting on this or that red line.

Because, thanks to the Northern Ireland protocol, a no deal Brexit will no longer throw arrangements on the island of Ireland into doubt, the EU’s incentives to avoid a no deal exit are much lower in 2020 than they were in 2019. It would still be economically damaging, but the damage will be asymmetric: most of that will fall on the UK side, and there are fewer political repercussions to fear at the EU’s end. Rightly or wrongly, the lesson that EU diplomats took from Johnson’s decision to U-Turn and put a regulatory border in the Irish Sea to secure a fresh withdrawal agreement is that he, too, believes that a no deal Brexit is undesirable. Johnson’s self-imposed deadline increases the chances of both a no-deal Brexit, and a free trade agreement that meets the EU’s objectives rather than the UK’s. But it hands committed Brexiteers in the Conservative party worried about the latter a handy back-up option, too: if the free trade agreement that Johnson signs doesn’t meet their requirements, then they can just vote it down and trigger a no deal Brexit by that route.

But in the here and now, the big political row is about the disappearance of previous guarantees on workers’ rights, negotiated by Caroline Flint, the defeated Labour MP for Don Valley. This has triggered a row within the Labour party, with those who hoped to overturn Brexit saying it shows how Flint et. al were sold a false bill of goods, while Flint and others like her have argued that it shows that Labour should have backed Brexit when they had the chance to shape it.

As is depressingly typical of the Labour party, both sides are full of it. The reason why the concessions secured by Flint and co are meaningless isn’t because Boris Johnson is a double-dealer, but because once the United Kingdom leaves the European Union, the level of labour market protections will be set solely by the British parliament, to rise or fall as a majority of MPs see fit. There is no such thing as a “binding commitment” from a sitting Prime Minister in those circumstances.

In voting to leave the European Union, the UK chose to seize the freedoms and benefits of life as a freelancer – while sacrificing the economic security that comes with being a salaried worker. Which is better? Well some people thrive as freelancers and other people prefer the security of a staff job. But the position of Flint – and former Labour MPs like Gareth Snell, Melanie Onn, and sitting Labour MPs like Lisa Nandy – is like declaring that you want to work as a freelancer while having paid time off. It suggests that you haven’t got your arms around what you are opting for. The point of Brexit is that no government will bind the hands of the next.

Flint is a poor example because MPs like Flint – and other Labour MPs like Kevin Barron and Jim Fitzpatrick, who ultimately did vote for the deal – ultimately grasped this, that the real choice before them was whether to back Brexit or not. You cannot back reclaiming parliamentary sovereignty while at the same time trying to impose indefinite concessions on it. But the reality is for the most part, the search for “guarantees on workers’ rights” was about finding a way to support Brexit in theory without ever having to do it in practice.

There are some exceptions to this: pro-Brexit MPs like Lucy Powell, Stephen Kinnock and Gloria DePiero, who consistently advocated for a particular and defined Brexit end state, be it membership of the European Economic Area or a customs union, did not do this. They had a Brexit end state that they advocated for and backed in the indicative votes in Parliament.

But whether consciously or not, the “guarantees on workers’ rights” crowd were asking for something which was not in the gift of Boris Johnson or Theresa May: they were trying to benefit from symbolically backing Brexit, without having to actually back it or think about the trade-offs involved.

Why does this matter? Most of the MPs in that group have lost their seats, after all. Well, it matters, because Labour’s magical thinking on Brexit doesn’t seem to have gone away – in fact, the remaining caucus of MPs who “want Brexit, but not really” looks likely to be more influential in Labour circles in the future than in the past. As Brexit will have happened, it’s important that Labour actually has a political programme based around the realities of Brexit. 

If you want to match the Conservative willingness for Brexit to happen, that willingness has to be coupled by willingness to accept that after Brexit, workers’ rights will be dependent on the existence of a pro-workers rights majority in the country and the House of Commons. If you want to match the Tory offer on reducing immigration from the EU and reclaiming political freedom, that has to be matched by an acceptance that Labour’s offer on public spending will be less generous than it was in 2019 – and 1997, 2001, 2005, 2010, 2015 and 2017 for that matter.

If Labour doesn’t want that, then it needs to work out how to win power promising a softer Brexit end state than the one that Boris Johnson will bring back at the end of 2020.

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