Because of Theresa May’s general election own-goal, Labour are more influential and united in the House of Commons, and indeed the Tories and now descending into their latest Europe-based civil war. In an attempt to appear more Prime Ministerial, Theresa May gave a speech today in which she reached out to the Labour Party and other parties to work with the government on delivering Brexit. May said “I say to other parties in the House of Commons- come forward with your own views and ideas about how we can tackle these challenges as a country”. Labour needs to seize this opportunity in order to preserve the more positive aspects of EU membership whilst also exploiting the fissures currently opening up in the Conservative Party.
Since the passage of the Treaty of Rome in 1957, European institutions have sought to create a so-called ‘social Europe’. This is resulted in directives and regulations being introduced to improve the lives of European citizens rather than exclusively focusing on the interests of capital. One such area is that of workers’ rights, which should be the Labour Party’s top priority. According to the TUC, EU legislation has improved workers’ rights in a number of ways, namely the right to unpaid family leave, improve health and safety standards, strengthened rights for part-time and agency staff, and so on. Labour need to plant their flag on this territory and incorporate the protection of these rights into any Brexit deal. If Labour want to prevent the UK descending to an Ayn Rand wet dream, protecting these basic workers rights will inoculate working class people from the excesses of Tory rule.
The same report also emphasises how recent European Court of Justice rulings have begun restricting some of the rights of trade unions to organise and conduct industrial action. This mixed picture, at least from a left-wing perspective, presents an opportunity from Brexit. Many people are confused about the ECJ and the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) and Brexit will result in Britain leaving the former rather than the latter. The ECHR has a fairly good record of recognising workers’ rights as human rights, and therefore leaving the ECJ would take the UK out of a legal body that has, as the TUC’s report said, recently begun restricting the rights of trade unions. Labour need to emphasise this distinction so that, as well as workers’ rights from EU law being transferred into UK law, trade unions retain their right to collectively bargain.
The second major policy area that the Labour Party should fight for is the raft of environmental regulation that the EU has passed over the years. The Tories sought to write off criticism in this area by simply saying the Great Repeal Bill would transpose all EU laws into British law but one can’t really do that with environmental legislation. International treaties about air pollution levels cannot simply be converted into UK law as there are questions as to which authority the government is accountable. For instance, by definition an international agreement isn’t international if it doesn’t bind nation-states to a universal standard that is out of the control of that government.
The Labour Party should demand that either all existing environmental legislation, including the financial penalties for non-compliance, are enforceable by the UK Supreme Court or that a key part of the Brexit negotiations is the signing of new multilateral treaties with EU member states so that the ECJ can impose these fines. The most practical would probably be the former as the number of newspaper headlines from the right-wing press about the imposition of EU laws would make the latter more politically toxic. In terms of other aspects of pollution and climate change legislation, many of the government’s obligations would be unchanged by Brexit as international agreements like the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement exist extrinsically of EU rules.
Although Theresa May has called for a more consensual approach to Brexit, it would be foolish for Labour not to exploit the ideological chasms within the Conservative Party and use these concrete policy objectives to turn the screws on government. For instance, many of the most enthusiastic Tory Brexit supporters are Thatcherites and view EU protections for workers’ rights and the environment as distortions of the market that should be repealed. However, more socially liberal Tories, lots of whom backed Remain, favour regulating the market to protect the environment and take a more European view to corporate governance that doesn’t result in them frothing at the mouth when trade unions are brought up in conversation.
It’s also worth emphasising that there are sections of the Conservative Party who are climate change deniers and so any attempt by Labour and others to insist on carbon reduction targets will stick in the throat of Tory backbenchers. Also, because all the opposition parties in the House of Commons would back the measures on environmental protection, it would not take many Tory MPs that believe in climate change, of which there are numerous, to force the government’s hand. Further, the DUP are climate deniers and any tension between these two partners could bring down this current right-wing government. Disagreement between these two parties must be encouraged at every opportunity because this will result in Tory moderates getting louder and louder.
To conclude, the Labour Party have to insist on the protections of workers and the environment as absolute red lines for the support of any Brexit deal. Although a smaller party in the Commons, a deal thrashed out by the Tories that ignores either of these areas of policy will expose internal Conservative Party divisions. Also, if the Tories somehow manage to get a deal together by themselves, they’ll have no one to blame if it goes wrong. From a Tory standpoint a more consensual approach gives them cover in the same way that the Coalition did, but on the other hand Tory hard Brexiteers will likely be vocal opponents of concessions to opposition parties.
By articulating red lines that are supported by the Lib Dems, the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Greens and the SDLP, Labour will only need the support or a few Tories to defeat any attempts to tack to the right. Any Tory hopes of cutting corporate taxes or undermining ‘pesky’ regulations have been scuppered as the Tory Party is so factional that moderates may sabotage these attempts out of spite. The next few months are going to be very interesting and Labour must seize this opportunity to protect working people, tackle climate change and stick a knife into the Tories.