Unite Brexit Conferences: Welsh members and Keir Starmer discuss free movement reform and need for a jobs first exit

Unite members spoke with shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer about how to retain single market access and be part of a customs union with the EU while implementing free movement safeguards at the union’s Wales Brexit conference.

Unite deputy regional secretary for Wales, Gareth Jones, opened the Cardiff conference by highlighting the need to prevent damaging impediments to trade and ensure a jobs first Brexit.

“Unite has been very clear that the final settlement should be in the interests of workers both in the UK and in Europe. Workers shouldn’t pay for Brexit. People voted to leave and we have accept that. But they didn’t vote to be worse off or have their jobs put at risk,” Jones said.

“Many of our workplaces, across all of our sectors in Wales, currently have the ability to move people and products seamlessly around the EU. Multiple border crossings make the threat of tariffs very real for those businesses and we can’t allow those workplaces, with their thousands of employees, to be put at risk.”

Debate soon led to the issue of free movement of labour, which along with goods, capital and services is one of the EU single market’s four pillars. How the UK’s participation in the four freedoms will change after leaving the EU is key to the current negotiations.

Some members were concerned that discussion over the kind of post-Brexit relationship the UK will have with the EU is still being polarised by the topic of immigration and limiting crucial debate on the other four freedoms.

One member said: “In this part of the world, if you went into a pub prior to the referendum someone would mention immigration… Even now it’s still an overriding issue.”

Another member said: “How do we start arguing effectively about immigration?”

Starmer said that that there had been a failure by the political establishment over a long period to highlight the many benefits of immigration and the contribution of migrants to society.

But as well as countering false and damaging xenophobic narratives, Starmer said there is a need to end freedom of movement exploitation.

Labour has said it will make it a priority to tackle the greedy bosses who have abused migrant workers to undermine employment conditions and attack the rate for the job.

Starmer told the conference: “There are examples of unscrupulous employers moving people across borders to pay them less money. That does happen. That’s wrong and it needs calling out. It’s not freedom of movement, that’s exploitation of movement.

“Many firms also pay lip service to training and apprentices and neglect skills development because they know they can effectively buy a skill later on somewhere else when they need it. There’s a massive skills problem in this country and it’s partly because of this.”

Although the Tories’ facile mantra of “Brexit means Brexit” and threats to crash out of the EU give a misleadingly simple answer to the often emotive subjects of immigration and sovereignty, Starmer was clear that the ideological goals motivating the Conservative Party’s approach to leaving the EU will disempower working people rather than help them.

While the government has failed to articulate a Brexit vision that does not contradict itself – including covering up a glaring lack of workable immigration policies with a hackneyed and consistently disproven pledge to “reduce immigration to the tens of thousands” – plans to erode workers’ rights are driving many powerful Tories.

“They believe that Britain will be more competitive and agile in the modern world if we are free to deregulate and move off the level playing field. They think workplace rights, environmental standards and food standards are red tape that hold us back on the world stage. They want to get us out of that framework because they believe in ultra free markets, low regulation and a small state with very little welfare provision,” Starmer explained.

“Rees Mogg, Boris Johnson, Micheal Gove, all that brigade, they want a different Britain. Many in this government would like to get their hands on these regulations and once they’re free to do so they will (get rid of them). Which is why, working with Unite, we’ve been laying down amendments to the EU Withdrawal Bill, saying if you want to restrict any of these rights and protections you’ve got to do it by primary legislation (needing a parliamentary vote), rather than by the back door.”

Starmer said Labour is doing everything in its power to prevent a hard right Tory Brexit and pointed out that Theresa May will face her biggest challange this autumn.

It is then when the prime minister will attempt to get her final deal with the EU through a deeply divided Parliament led by a minority government riven by Europhile Tory MPs on one hand and hard right Brexiteers on the other.

“If the prime minister cannot carry Parliament with her deal she has got to go. She can’t just say ‘I’ll carry on regardless, I’ll walk us off a cliff because I told you I would’. I think that’s going to be a very big moment, this year, which will determine where we head next,” Starmer told the conference.

“We can’t say whether there will be a general election, but I say over and over again: ‘Labour is ready, we are waiting and we will take over these negotiations and conduct them differently and better’. The first opportunity we get to do that the better.”