I think we can all agree that Brexit is the biggest challenge facing our movement today – graphically illustrated by Steve’s excellent opening contribution.
The jobs of our members, their rights at work, the future of our communities depend on getting this right. Like most unions here, Unite campaigned for Britain to remain in the European Union. But that’s an argument we lost – including, with large numbers of our own members. My view hasn’t changed – on balance, Britain would be better in the European Union than it would out
But that’s no longer today’s argument. We are democrats and we must accept the decision of the people, otherwise Bertholt Brecht’s famous quote of governments’ changing the people comes into play.
But, colleagues, we do face a crisis – entirely of the Tory government’s making. Rather than negotiate seriously with the EU it has wasted two years arguing with itself. Theresa May trying to appease the unappeasable. Trying to split the difference between common sense and economic madness.
She has been held hostage by a coalition of imperial nostalgics and free market fanatics whose vision is of a British society of the 1950s allied to the economic dogma of the 1850s.
This would all be very funny if we were not being marched to the cliff edge, while, like Nero, the cabinet fiddles. For the Prime Minister it seemed more important to keep Boris Johnson in the cabinet than it did to keep jobs in this country – and look how that’s ended!
Conference, our priorities are different, as this composite, and the General Council’s statement make clear. We insist on a Brexit that keeps and, indeed, builds on those workers’ rights that come from the EU; secures barrier-free trade with Europe – which is the only guarantee for millions of jobs and investment; protects both EU citizens here and British citizens living and working in the EU; and must include securing a customs union with the EU after we leave.
But, Sisters and Brothers, we also have to consider the politics of Brexit, as the government’s strategy moves towards its moment of contact with reality.
Old Kent Road
Since the “Chequers” plan is on life support, the danger of a “no deal” Brexit looms ever larger. That would turn a problem into a calamity – lorry queues at Dover stretching back to the Old Kent Road; medicines running out; aeroplanes unable to land anywhere.
We are told that Chris Grayling of all people is going to negotiate bespoke arrangements with all 27 EU countries for landing rights. This from a man who can’t organise a train from London to Doncaster without the operator going bankrupt. It’s hardly reassuring.
So, if we head towards a “no deal” Brexit it will be time for parliament to slam the brakes on. And for this divided and reckless government to make way for one which can deliver the proper jobs-first Brexit which is the only responsible way to honour the 2016 referendum result.
The vote we desperately need above all is a General Election that can deliver a Labour government which will not only conduct honest and friendly talks with the EU – but is the only political party with policies to deliver for the whole nation, for the 52 per cent and the 48 per cent. Tackling the underlying economic and social problems that led so many to give the establishment a well-deserved kicking two years ago.
I understand the argument for a so-called People’s Vote on the deal, on the deal – not on leaving the EU. That People’s Vote has already happened.
And I accept that option must be left on the table, if for no other reason than as a safety net if Tory MPs become spineless and don’t have the courage of their own convictions to oppose what the Prime Minister brings back.
But let’s focus on the prize – sweeping this government away in a general election and giving Labour under Corbyn the chance to repair two wasted years of Tory wrangling – and 40 wasted years of neo-liberal aggression against our jobs, our services, our rights and our communities.