As the unions push Labour in a Remain direction, there is still a glimmer of hope for the party’s Brexiteers

As the unions push Labour in a Remain direction, there is still a glimmer of hope for the party’s Brexiteers

In the 1970s and 1980s it was the huge divisions in the Trade Union movement that contributed to the Labour Party adopting a more eurosceptic stance, reaching its peak in 1983 – under the leadership of Michael Foot – the party supported a unilateral withdrawal from the European Economic Community. In the first referendum on our membership of the Common Market, in 1975, eurosceptic unions largely supported the leadership, funding and organisation of the ‘No’ campaign. How times have changed!

In developing Labour’s present policy on the European Union, Jeremy Corbyn (a longstanding eurosceptic himself) has undertaken consultations with the various component parts that make up the Labour movement. For those outside the Labour movement, it will seem extraordinary that Labour’s policy has been so long in its evolution. The Labour Party is built on committees, liaison groups, policy forums and affiliated societies and units of the party, hence the time it has taken.

And yesterday, the affiliated Trade Unions determined their policy as part of that consultation. Needless to say, while just stopping short of an unequivocal backing of Remain under any circumstances, the direction of travel is clear to see.

Both positions outlined by the General Secretaries last night are hypothetical. But what is highly significant is that the General Secretary of UNITE, Len McCluskey, has shifted his stance somewhat.

Under the first scenario, the Trade Unions affiliated to the party have determined that Labour should campaign for a second referendum and support Remain if the next Tory Prime Minister negotiates a new Brexit deal. Similarly, they want a referendum if the option facing the country is ‘no-deal’ and under these circumstances they expect Labour to campaign for Remain.

This is highly significant. The Trade Unions are the primary funders of the Labour Party and play a huge role in determining policy and the leadership of the party. It is virtually impossible for Jeremy Corbyn to avoid, as he has done so far, a total commitment to a second referendum. But for Trade Unions to support the removal of the ultimate negotiating card – namely, that of walking away with no deal – is staggering given that no General Secretary would immediately remove the threat of strike action in any employment negotiations.

The second scenario is far more interesting. In the event of there being a general election, the union leaders have said that Labour should seek to negotiate a new Brexit deal on leaving the European Union, informed by Labour values and principles and cemented on Labour’s negotiating priorities. But the unions still believe, even under a Labour negotiation, that there should still be a confirmatory vote in the form of a second referendum. Under these circumstances, the options before the country would be to Remain, or to support a Labour Government’s negotiated Brexit. Stay with me…

Under this second scenario it would seem that for Brexiteers in the Labour Party, there is still a glimmer of hope. If Labour were to win a snap general election and negotiate a withdrawal from the European Union, it would be more likely than not that Labour would support that deal, and therefore ultimately would support leaving the European Union in a referendum. The nature of that deal is, of course, unknown at this stage.

Of course, these policy positions have not been subject to a confirmatory vote by the members of the various Trade Unions. It is likely that this will be debated at the Trades Union Congress later this year, and through the various union conferences over the months ahead. Labour’s Shadow Cabinet is due to meet today to respond to the unions and other consultations taking place.

Many ordinary Trade Union members voted to Leave the European Union. While the leadership of the Trade Unions is very supportive of ongoing membership of the European Union, the opinion on the shop floor differs significantly. ASLEF (railway union), BAFWU (bakers’ union) and the RMT (non-affiliated railway union) all campaigned to Leave at the referendum in 2016. Some regional branches of the unions, such as Unison North West, also supported Leave. Other unions, such as the FBU (Fire Brigades Union), were split 50:50.

The most important element of yesterday’s talks is that the Trade Union leaders have not yet expressed a view as to how Labour should campaign in the event of a Labour government negotiating a withdrawal from the European Union. It leaves the door open for Labour still supporting a form of Brexit: it is very difficult to see how a Labour government, indeed any government, would campaign against its own deal in a referendum.

In all of this, the Labour and Trade Union movement must continue to reflect over some vital statistics. Seventy percent of Labour constituencies voted to Leave the European Union. Around five million Labour voters supported Leave. A majority of our most marginal seats voted Leave and a majority of our top target seats also voted to Leave the European Union. The position adopted by the Trade Union leaders yesterday will do little to bolster support for Labour in the Leave marginal seats, particularly in England and Wales.

Meanwhile the European Union will be delighted with the position adopted by the unions. It adds more pressure to an embattled Labour leader who is facing fierce challenges on this from all wings of the party.

It would seem to me that Jeremy Corbyn really does not want to adopt this policy. If his heart were truly ‘Remain’, Labour would already be campaigning officially on that ticket – but that is not the case. He has allies in the form of the Party Chair, Ian Lavery, and the Shadow Cabinet Office Minister, Jon Trickett, in addition to around 40 backbenchers – many in Leave seats such as Caroline Flint and Gareth Snell, fighting to defend the referendum vote. It is extraordinary, that ultimately, it is Jeremy Corbyn and his aides who appear to be the last eurosceptics standing in the leadership of the Labour Party.