07:04, April 08 44 0 theguardian.com

2019-04-08 07:04:06
If workers’ rights are to survive Brexit, Labour needs to demand more

The talks going on right now between the prime minister and the leader of the opposition should not necessarily end in failure. Although logic tells us they will dissipate into a flurry of angry press releases, there could be another outcome. One which involves a referendum, and provides insurance in case of a change of prime minister.

The past few weeks show there’s no clear majority for a second referendum at Westminster. And if we accept that Tory MPs won’t go into a general election with their current leader, and the prime minister does not have the level of support to advocate for a public vote any more than she can for a “no deal”, then what would a good Labour outcome resemble? The party has made clear that its priority is for a negotiated deal that is closer to what many have called a “soft Brexit”, and there’s potential for movement from Theresa May in this area. But what is less discussed is the other demand made by Labour of guarantees on consumer and workers’ rights.

Up until now, this has simply meant broad alignment with existing EU regulations, and to keep in step with any future progressive EU directives. The latter is still something that is dependent on the future government of the day. Yet, unless you think Britain resembles a worker’s utopia, this seems like quite low hanging fruit. After all, the trade union act brought in by David Cameron wasn’t prevented by EU directives. If your fear, like mine, is a Tory government that would shred workers’ rights then we need a little more than a continuation of the status quo.

Therefore, Labour should argue that any political declaration is matched by a “domestic settlement”. It would be one that protects workers’ and consumers’ rights and, importantly, one that the prime minister could initiate immediately. It can be done, for example, via the agreement of a cross-party committee on a bill of rights, in which Labour has equal footing alongside the governing party. It would allow Labour to future-proof consumer and workers’ rights into the fabric of our country’s laws. The opening principle would be that it would match existing and future EU worker and consumer rights, but also be built upon by a process of public dialogue.

It could follow a similar process to that of the European convention, which led to the charter of fundamental rights of the European Union. Devolved administrations should also be brought into the process, making sure this is not a solely Westminster project. There’s precedent for this sort of cross-party work in our country, and even under a Tory government. In the early 1990s the Scottish constitutional convention led to the Scottish parliament and influenced the devolution settlement in our country today. Why not have a similar one based on citizens’ rights? But this time formalised on a statutory footing.

Such a charter could also be validated by the public in a referendum as the outcome of the Scottish constitutional convention was in the setting up of the Scottish parliament. This would help meet any demands for a plebiscite on the Brexit process as we would be voting to “remain” with current regulations or for going forward with enhanced rights. It also makes it much harder for any future government to repeal.

However, the largest impediment to any agreement between the leaders in these negotiations is still the lame duck prime minister. There’s discussion of a “Boris lock” to prevent anything that’s agreed being overturned, but that could still be repealed by a new government, which is why such a government in a hung parliament needs to also be weakened. Therefore, one simple solution could be the repeal of the fixed-term parliaments act, a move which was in the 2017 Conservative manifesto, so it would be hard for Tory MPs to oppose. It would also weaken any future successor who wished to renege on the agreement.

How likely is all this? Remote at best. It seems both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn are prisoners to the division in their parties. Nonetheless, the alternative is for the continuation of a deadlock for which ultimately both risk being blamed. And in Corbyn Labour has a leader who has shown he can overturn the odds and surprise the commentators.

James Mills is a former senior strategic adviser to Jeremy Corbyn and former director of communications to the shadow chancellor and shadow treasury team

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