Behind Britain’s Brexit mess: A push to destroy workers’ rights
Pro-Brexit and anti-Brexit protesters shout at each other opposite the Houses of Parliament in London, March 14, 2019. | Matt Dunham / AP

LISBON, Portugal—Britain’s version of Donald Trump, right-wing Prime Minister Boris Johnson, was handed a major defeat Monday when his second try at calling an election to solve the Brexit mess was rebuffed.

Labor and left forces in Britain say his call for a “snap election” is nothing more than an attempt to crush the opposition Labour Party, whose leader Jeremy Corbyn has been pushing for a deal to exit the European Union with measures that will support job creation and labor rights in Britain. Johnson wants a “no-deal” exit from the EU so his ruling Tory Party can be free to undermine further the standard of living of British workers.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. | Andrew Milligan / PA via AP

Johnson’s shutdown of Parliament Monday was a way to avoid any discussion of a deal that would guarantee workers’ rights and jobs in his country. He was hoping that by calling a snap election he could get voters to back his “no-deal” approach to leaving the EU.

It became quite clear this week, if it was not already, that the stepped-up confusion around Brexit is a conscious attempt by the right wing to destroy the Labour Party.

Right-wing extremist Nigel Farage said as much when he offered Johnson a deal that would have the Tories backing the hand-picked Farage candidates in parts of the country in exchange for him backing Tory candidates in other parts. The two right wingers should collaborate, he said publicly, “to finish off the Labour Party.”

Corbyn said, “We are eager for an election but as keen as we are, we’re not prepared to risk inflicting the disaster of no deal on our communities, our jobs, our services, or indeed our rights.”

In order to understand critical underlying factors in this fracas, it is important to understand that the European Union is not some type of modern-day guarantor of democratic and workers’ rights. People’s World discussed this with representatives of the British, Portuguese, and other communist and workers’ parties who were attending the huge annual Avante! Festival near here last weekend.

Portuguese attendees said that after Portugal joined the EU it took less than 10 years for the percentage of workers covered by collective bargaining rights to plummet from 70% to just under 15%. As a condition of membership, the country had to sign on to major deindustrialization, promises not to nationalize energy conglomerates, and reduce collective bargaining rights.

“It’s why in Britain much of labor and the left supported Brexit,” said Liz Payne, chair of the Communist Party of Britain.

“The narrative that this is a fight between liberals and supporters of democracy on the one hand and racists on the other is absolutely false,” says Robert Griffiths, the party’s general secretary.

“EU talk about the free movement of people and labor across borders has nothing to do with human rights,” Payne added. “Their policy is taking the cheapest possible labor from one place to another wherever the corporation needs it. Workers’ rights, as far as they are concerned, are an individual matter at best, having nothing to do with the right to act collectively in their interests.”

Miners come off the last shift at Kellingley Colliery in Knottingley, northern England, on the final day of production, Dec. 18, 2015. These workers at Britain’s last operating deep coal mine finished their final shift. Working-class regions like this one, which have been hit hard by deindustrialization and capital flight, were among those that voted heavily for Brexit. | John Giles / PA via AP

She pointed out that it had long been the Tories who were anti-Brexit because they could achieve what they wanted in anti-labor policy within the framework of the EU. After the vote for Brexit, the Tories, especially under Johnson, have pushed for an exit deal that does as little as possible for workers’ rights and job creation.

The Labour Party is split on the question of Brexit with the left supporting it and the conservatives, like former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair, opposing it. “Corbyn supports getting out,” Payne said, “but with guarantees for labor rights. He essentially is aiming for a Labour government in Britain with a good manifesto for all workers, native and foreign born. It’s what we need—a left-led Labour government with a good manifesto. Without that, you leave the neoliberals in charge. They have no pro-worker policy, so you essentially leave workers to gravitate to the right.”

The European Union encompasses 28 member countries with over 500 million people. It actually has its roots in post-World War II and Cold War attempts to build an anti-Soviet political and economic block. Since then, there were numerous forms of cooperation eventually developing into the EU of today. The EU’s “right of establishment” empowers companies in one country to set up and conduct operations in another member country—no need for the democratic approval of anyone, especially the consent of workers, or even of elected governments. It’s the main reason almost all the corporate moguls in Europe and around the world support the EU.

The result has been unregulated imports for places like Britain and the shift of production to low-cost areas of Europe and super-exploitation of workers in places like Greece and Portugal.

The “free movement of labor” talked about in the EU constitution is presented in its published documents as the “free movement of persons,” essentially trying to humanize the real aim: maximizing profit through exploitation of mobile labor power. The EU allows countries to transfer workers across borders even if by doing so they undermine their current pay or working conditions. The European Court of Justice established by the EU has upheld the right of companies to do this. (This court should not be confused with the European Court of Human Rights which has nothing to do with it.)

Right-wing governments are, of course, more than happy to slash social spending, privatize companies, and cut taxes for the rich. For countries ruled by more progressive governments, however, the EU has constantly pressured them to do the same to their people that the right-wing governments do to theirs.

Although the EU parliament is democratically elected, it has no power normally associated with an elected parliamentary body. It cannot change, for example, any of the above-mentioned policies.

One of the common arguments for the EU is that it is a force for peace in Europe and in the world. Again, the opposite is the case. The EU has expanded alongside NATO throughout all of Eastern Europe, the Baltic states, and into parts of the former Soviet Union. The Treaty on European Concerns commits EU members to rearmament and to “common security” so that all EU members “will contribute to the vitality of a renewed Atlantic alliance.” Ursula von der Leyen, the new president of the EU, bragged during her campaign for that office earlier this year that her country (Germany) has more troops in Afghanistan than anyone other than the United States.

Robert Griffiths was asked if support for Brexit in his country was a racist movement. Instead, it has been the EU itself, he said, that has stoked racism.

“The free movement of people within the EU has been accompanied by restrictions on people coming in from elsewhere,” he said. “EU member countries, including Britain, Denmark, Sweden, and the Netherlands, have been pressured by the EU to raise their barriers to non-EU immigrants.

Capital has free reign across the European Union. In this Jan. 30 photo, workers press British brand T-shirts at Pedrosa & Rodrigues, the factory that produces them, in Barcelos, Portugal. | Armando Franca / AP

“This ‘Fortress Europe’ policy has helped create the conditions in which violent racist attacks have increased in many EU countries.”

He noted that the EU moves against African countries have contributed to the problem, too.

“The trade and investment agreements imposed upon countries in Africa by the EU have opened up their economies to privatization, including privatization of water supplies, and have forced those countries into over-dependence on just a few exports. All of this contributes to debt, destitution, and mass migration.”

As for his own country, Griffiths said that while many pro-Brexit voters in 2016 were concerned about immigration, opinion surveys showed that the biggest issue was democratic control and national sovereignty.

He said this is where his party and the labor movement and its allies have to step up. “Misplaced fears about the impact of immigration on jobs and public service must be countered with information and rational argument, not by falsely branding 17.4 million people as racists.”


John Wojcik
John Wojcik

John Wojcik is Editor-in-Chief of People's World. He joined the staff as Labor Editor in May 2007 after working as a union meat cutter in northern New Jersey. There, he served as a shop steward and a member of a UFCW contract negotiating committee. In the 1970s and '80s, he was a political action reporter for the Daily World, this newspaper's predecessor, and was active in electoral politics in Brooklyn, New York.