As the world economy slides towards recession, tension with existing international trade arrangements grow and the economic order that has led to the downgrading and downsizing of jobs is looking increasingly shaky. These changes at a global level combined with the vote to leave the EU all point to a recomposition of the global economic order as we know it This presents positive opportunities for workers and environmentalists.
Globalisation has led to unsustainable increases in global carbon emissions which were 67% higher in 2013 than 1990. These massive increases in emissions map directly to the growth of the integrated trading networks over this period. Unless we change the way society produces and trades goods we are going to experience runaway climate change. The challenge for the radical left is to make sure this current crisis leads to change that starts to reverse the growing carbon emissions and benefits working class communities.
In this emerging situation there will be an enhanced role for the nation state. It will no longer be good enough for politicians to fob off working class communities with the idea that globalisation is an unstoppable force of nature against which they are powerless to act. A greater possibility could exist for the powers of the state to be used to retain and direct jobs to social and green ends. The idea that inequality, industrial decay, runaway climate change and stagnant living standards are something we have to suck up won’t wash any more. But if the left doesn’t challenge the status quo then people will increasingly look to the radical solutions of the right.
The vote to leave the EU must be seen in this context of deep seated problems for the world economic order. The left needs to urgently develop an agenda that aims to put the climate and working class communities front and centre with the environment, jobs, migrant rights and workers’ rights to the fore.
Whatever your perspective on leaving the EU, the left needs to work out how it deals with a no-deal Brexit. The looming prospect of no-deal provides both threats and opportunities for the labour movement. On trade, migration, fiscal policy and the integrity of the United Kingdom itself, no deal could have profound consequences. We need to establish what this will mean for the labour movement and prepare accordingly. The LeFT campaign wants to help develop alternative solutions for each of these issues and we will highlight how the labour movement can try and take the initiative as Britain leaves the EU.
One of the major issues with a no deal scenario will be the increased uncertainty of life and work in Britain. No transition period means that working people will have to respond immediately to changes resulting from leaving the EU. There is no clarity, or precedent for what happens next and whatever occurs will definitely not be predetermined. It will ultimately be decided by the pressure of contending forces. In LeFT, we believe the labour movement can make a decisive impact on the outcome to jobs that a no deal scenario presents.
One of the key areas is the situation faced by union members whose jobs are currently threatened by the breakdown in global supply chains. The automotive, aerospace and shipbuilding sectors alongside their supply chains will be massively affected by any no deal Brexit. In the automotive sector, investment crashed more than 70 per cent to just £90m in the first six months of 2019. Additionally, UK car production fell by 20 per cent during the first half of the year, with June being the thirteenth consecutive month production has declined. The automotive sector is already in crisis with or without a Brexit deal.
At the Vauxhall plant at Ellesmere Port about 1000 jobs are being threatened by the employers. The French owners, PSA have said that they will use alternative plants in Europe in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
At Honda, the owners have announced plans to wind down the plant with Brexit cited as one of the reasons for ending 30 years of production at Swindon. Honda’s decision to close its only UK factory will devastate the workforce and the entire community. If the closure isn’t stopped 3,500 jobs at the plant will be lost with a further 12,000 or more across the supply chain and region at risk. So far the campaign to prevent the closure hasn’t yet created enough pressure to reverse this decision.
At BMW in Oxford, plans are afoot to build the electric model of the Mini at the Cowley plant which employs about 4,500 people. However, production is tightly integrated with wheels produced in plants in Southern Germany. Threats are already being made to shift production to the Netherlands in the event of a no deal Brexit. Finding a solution that saves the jobs at Cowley will mean breaking with the neoliberal status quo. If EU rules make the existing production arrangements prohibitive then we should assemble all the components here. If BMW decide to move the plant then we should campaign for the plant to be renationalised.
Throughout Britain, 850,000 workers depend on the automotive sector. These jobs bring skills, wages and the promise of future skilled work to communities across Britain. We have to fight for a future for each and every job. But maintaining skilled, well paid employment on this scale will need new thinking and a strategy that directly confronts the EU and neoliberal capital.
Breaking the Impasse
The Harland and Wolff (H&W) shipyard brings into focus both the problems and potential solutions for manufacturing workers faced with closure. There has been a long term decline at the yard—from a peak of 35,000 workers there are now 130 workers fighting to save their jobs.
The men and women, who are members of Unite and the GMB, can’t afford to look back to the days of mighty ocean liners and battleships for their future. Instead, they have evaluated the productive assets of the yards and plan to use them as part of the necessary industrial capacity that can begin to turn the tide against climate change.
They have combined their technical skills with their knowledge of the H&W facilities and a vision of how they can fabricate the wave, wind and tidal units that can harness the vast renewable resources that can provide clean, affordable and abundant energy.
However, Boris Johnson’s Tory government and their DUP lackeys, some of whom are constituency MP’s for the workers in the shipyard, are opposed to the occupation and the workers plans for survival. They have refused to nationalise the yard which is in occupation. At the time of writing, the workers have won a guarantee that their jobs and skills will be protected. The occupation continues to make sure that promises of job security are realised. The current occupation at H&W is a critical example of workers fighting for their jobs and a new set of priorities. The occupation tactic raises the stakes with workers holding ‘hostage’ the yards assets allowing them to dictate the terms of any outcome from a position of real power which is already yielding results.
The example of H&W highlights the necessity of saving these manufacturing jobs with a strategy for conversion to energy renewables. However, the struggle in Belfast also shows how we need to break with the failed priorities of the neoliberal agenda with a radical struggle against the employers, the Tories and their priorities that continue to fail ordinary workers and the need to combat climate change.
Where plant, jobs and communities are threatened in manufacturing with no deal and the break-down of global supply chains there should be no reason why these plants can’t be nationalised. If we allow them to close they will be gone forever. Today we see the possibilities for real change. The Scottish government has recently added to an original £45 million investment by taking steps to nationalise the threatened Clyde Ferguson Marine shipyard which it sees as a vital industrial asset. Ferguson is the only yard in the world with the technology to build hydrogen powered vessels that are free of carbon emissions. So, saving Ferguson Marine becomes a priority not just for the 350 permanent and 60 agency jobs – as well as the local community- but for their state-owned assets to become world leaders in the development of alternative technologies that can help us cut carbon emissions.
On the left, it’s understood that nationalising assets for the ‘public good’ is forbidden under EU competition and state aid rules. So what’s going on?
The EU allows for temporary ’emergency’ nationalisations, or where there is no private firm willing to bid for a service (like East Coast Main Line). What is forbidden, partly under the competition laws, is ‘ideological’ nationalisation on the grounds of public interest. In this case, the Scottish Government was already the main creditor of the private business. According to the SNP Cabinet Secretary for Finance, David MacKay, EU state aid rules meant that the Scottish Government could not simply bail-out the private company – as this would be to show preference for it on an arbitrary basis. So the Scottish government’s ability to nationalise the yards depended on the fact that most of the private yard’s business was coming from the Scottish Government. However, EU state aid rules could make it difficult for the yard to compete for future contracts.
So, in these unique circumstances where private capital isn’t ‘threatened’ by the takeover, EU rules will permit government intervention. Clearly, different rules will apply to any radical government looking to renationalise utilities or transport infrastructure.
While union reps will continue to do all they can to save existing jobs, we can see how the employers’ priorities aren’t the same as ours and we need to develop alternative strategies to protect our jobs and fight for our own interests. If we are to drive electric cars in Britain, then we should build them in Ellesmere Port, Swindon and Cowley. At H&W, the yard should be nationalised and reps’ plans to build renewables should be developed in partnership with workplace committees.
In the LeFT campaign we want to work with others to build a movement in workplaces and communities that campaigns for threatened plants to be nationalised with plans developed to retrain and retool workers, plant and machinery. This approach could protect jobs while allowing them to be incorporated into strategies that will make the Green New Deal a reality today. The LeFT campaign wants to see the immediate repeal of all anti-trade union legislation and the beginning of an urgent debate on how best we increase working class democracy with workplace committees having direct involvement in the governance of nationalised assets under public ownership and controlled by working class people.
The election of Johnson means the stakes are high for all sides. The ruling elite are split about the Tory leadership and Brexit; however, there is also a sense of paralysis on the left. A radical challenge must come from outside of the establishment to break the impasse. The question facing the movement, no matter how difficult it may seem is to try and work out how we resolve the political crisis in favour of the working class and the labour movement. The prospect of a potential Corbyn government without the constraints of the EU is a nightmare scenario for the British ruling class. Yet, the Corbyn project is coming under increasing pressure to adopt a Remain position and support a second referendum. Instead of moving towards Remain, Labour should be supporting workers fighting job cuts and closures today while highlighting how any potential Labour administration would protect workers from the likely impact of Brexit – deal or no deal.
As a general election looks increasingly likely, the LeFT campaign wants to work with others in the labour movement to help prepare the working class movement to take advantage of the new situation and freedom of action a future Labour government would have outside of the EU. It’s time we gathered our strength and took advantage of the weakness of the establishment. The fight to turn any no deal Brexit into a Tory nightmare should begin with building solidarity with the workers occupation at H&W who are demanding that it’s nationalised.
Messages of support to H&W workers can be sent to Susan.firstname.lastname@example.org
Ray Morell is a Unite Rep in the Aerospace and Shipbuilding sector.