Bouncing Brexit into being benign

The recent general election was supposed to give Theresa May an increased majority which, in her mind – but no one else’s – would deal her a stronger hand in negotiating Brexit. The result of this cunning plan dreamt up when she and her investment banker husband were on a walking holiday in Wales was a complete calamity. The worst Tory election campaign in living memory, a manifesto launch that looked like it took place in an abandoned bus garage and a candidate for Prime Minister who looked like she was allergic to the voters came unstuck when up against a genuinely radical Labour manifesto written in the image of a leader comfortable amongst people who thrived and grew as the campaign progressed. None of the pollsters or the ‘clever’ people of the political commentariat predicted the outcome.

Now May hobbles along ‘a dead woman walking’ as George Osborne gleefully called her during the post-election analysis. But let’s be clear – for now this walking target for a Tory leadership challenge is the one who will be leading the country during Brexit negotiations. My oh my, how that should fill us with optimism, hope and … nah, we all know it will be a complete disaster if we allow it to happen. But it doesn’t have to be this way, it could be so different. Brexit poses huge challenges but also presents many opportunities. Britain could be leading the charge for progressive change in Europe. Change that could ripple across the continent, eradicating some of the worst aspects of the EU and the conditions imposed on nation states by the single market, held up by some misguided people as an economic nirvana.

We could create a Europe where:

  • People and communities are prioritised over competition and forced, artificial convergence;
  • Fairness, cooperation and social and economic solidarity are central to the development of a social Europe;
  • Democracy and human rights are deepened not eroded;
  • Collective bargaining is engrained in a new and genuine social contract; and
  • Workers are protected wherever in the world they come from by ensuring they have right to the same wages and conditions as any other worker who gives of their labour throughout Europe.

We could create a new non-discriminatory immigration policy so that all those who want to come and live and work here are treated the same and where there will be a zero tolerance approach to ‘foreign only’ recruitment which leads to undercutting and exploitation.

And, our history tells us very clearly, indeed, that for working people it is not the Tory party, nor the Liberals nor nationalists in the shape of SNP or the busted flush that is UKIP who will deliver positive and progressive change – it will be the labour movement. The labour movement with its proud history of campaigning and delivering for our class must set out very clearly our aims and objectives. 

In or out of the single market, we have to have trading arrangements that end some of the nonsensical competition laws that inhibit progressive policies being implemented. Policies that, for example, would prevent Labour delivering its manifesto commitments on public ownership of key sectors like water, energy and rail.

We need agreements that allow Government’s and public bodies to build in social and environmental protections to the public procurement process so that we can pay a living wage to all workers, and buy materials, goods and services from the local supply chain, securing jobs whilst protecting our natural environment.

And we must argue that intervention in the economy to support key sectors is not just desirable but essential if we are to promote manufacturing and new industries (ending the prohibitive nonsense of ‘state aid’ restrictions).

I believe such an approach would gain support from workers across the country and across Europe.

On the key issue of the free movement of Labour, I fully support giving EU citizens living here the right to remain. But this does not address the inherent problem within the EU – that is the economic failures that have caused mass youth unemployment across states forcing young people to up sticks and leave their homeland, their communities and their families to try and make a living elsewhere often in low skilled, temporary and low paid work.

Young people have been in the frontline of the austerity politics driven by the European Central Bank and the EU Commission. Where has been the outcry about the 46.6% unemployment rate in Greece or 38.6% rate in Spain? Is the single market delivering for our young Greek, Spanish, Italian, Croatian friends? I think not. The silence from European leaders on this has been deafening.

These issues and many more have to be at the forefront of the Labour Party’s and the labour movement’s priorities for Brexit. We should seek alliances across Europe around these common aims to build a genuinely social Europe. Leaving such vital matters to David Davis, Boris Johnson and Theresa May can only ever end very badly.

Table on youth unemployment in EU

Neil Findlay is a Labour MSP for the Lothians