TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady fought to shift the union federation this week behind growing calls led by the right and big business for a “People’s Vote” on Brexit.
And she hitched the TUC to a Brexit deal that keeps Britain wedded to the European Union’s (EU) free market policies and undermines freedom of movement.
In her speech to congress on Monday, O’Grady welcomed the possibility of a general election if there’s a disastrous Tory Brexit deal.
She called on Theresa May to “stand down and take your ‘do nothing government’ with you.”
But the overwhelming focus of O’Grady’s speech was to signal a change among some union leaders, the majority of whom have resisted supporting a second referendum.
O’Grady warned Theresa May the TUC would back a People’s Vote—a referendum on the terms of the deal—if she came back with a bad deal or didn’t call a general election.
“We’ll throw our full weight behind a campaign and demand that the terms of the deal are put to a popular vote,” said O’Grady.
In effect this would be a way of rerunning the Brexit vote. If the unions follow this line they will mark themselves as hostile to those who voted Leave.
A second referendum would be a gift to the far right, which will claim betrayal.
The TUC General Council statement was deliberately broad enough to be all things to all union leaders who are split over Brexit.
The various sops in it guaranteed O’Grady could push through her support for the EU’s neoliberal single market and the People’s Vote.
Only the RMT rail workers’ union—and two rebel Unite delegates—voted against the statement.
The composite motion on Brexit kept support for the EU single market and the option of a People’s Vote.
But it had more emphasis of forcing an early general election in order to win over the leaders of unions with members who voted Leave.
Unite general secretary Len McCluskey said the People’s Vote option “must be left on the table”.
But he said the “vote we will need above all is a general election that can deliver a Labour government”.
Dave Ward, CWU union general secretary, supported the composite motion.
But he said, “A second referendum would be the biggest mistake our movement could make if it wants to bring about a change of government. And PCS union leader Mark Serwotka hoped that a “People’s Vote would be a popular vote—a vote of no confidence that would lead to a general election”.
A People’s Vote would draw a line of division through the working class—with Remain on one side and Leave on the other. This would weaken the labour movement’s ability to mount a united fightback against the Tories’ austerity and racism.
And the TUC’s support for the EU’s neoliberal single market would make it harder to win the “new deal for workers” it talks about. The single market blocks policies such as the nationalisation of whole industries such as railways.
Mick Cash, RMT general secretary, said, “The single market is the driving force behind the race to the bottom, privatisation and austerity.”
Cash said the People’s Vote is a “de facto second referendum on the EU” whatever its wording.
“Those calling for a second referendum are your Chuka Umunnas, Peter Mandelsons and Lib Dems,” he said.
The best way to fight for a socialist Brexit is through raising the level of struggle to fight racism and break the Tory assaults.
This could also force a general election and kick out May and all the Tories.
A Tory split is on the horizon
The Tory Brexit wars have intensified in the run-up to the party conference.
Former foreign secretary Boris Johnson stepped up his attack on Theresa May by saying that she had “wrapped a suicide vest” around the British constitution during the Brexit negotiations.
He added that she had “handed the detonator” to the European Union.
His remarks outraged Tory MPs who are backing May’s plan for Brexit that was drawn up at a meeting at Chequers in July.
But Johnson isn’t letting up—probably in the hope he can launch a leadership challenge at some point. He plans to address up to 1,000 party activists at a “Chuck Chequers” rally during the Tory conference.
On Monday former Brexit minister Steve Baker warned that as many as 80 Tory MPs were prepared to vote down May’s Brexit Chequers plan.
“It is extremely difficult to see how we can rescue the Conservative Party from a catastrophic split if the Chequers proposals are carried forward,” he said.
The EU is getting nervous that May could fall and set off further chaos. There has been talk of giving May some concessions.
One EU diplomat dubbed it a “save Theresa” operation.
And EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier said that aspects of a deal could be hammered out but there are still many disagreements.
European Parliament Brexit coordinator Guy Verhofstadt said May will need to change her Chequers plan for there to be a deal.
“A customs union needs to be the same tariffs, the same standards and one type of customs duties. Cherry picking inside the single market is not possible.”
May’s problem remains that any deal that the EU will agree is unlikely to be acceptable to a majority of MPs.
Prepare for further turmoil.