I’ve seen trade unions Euroscepticism up close and personal on more than one occasion. Most of it is the old left suspicion of the whole thing as some sort of capitalist conspiracy, designed to stop the socialist utopia from ever happening. In some senses, their instincts are correct – stealing people’s land and nationalising it is pretty much impossible while a country is in the EU, as a for instance. But the question of what stance the trade unions are going to take during the EU referendum is a good one. So I wasn’t surprised to read these words from Francis Elliot in the Times this morning:
“Britain’s second biggest union has said that it could urge its members to vote to leave the EU. Unison won’t back the Labour party’s drive to keep Britain in the bloc and may not decide what to recommend to its 1.3 million public sector workers until days before a June referendum. In a further blow to Alan Johnson, who is leading Labour In for Britain, Jeremy Corbyn’s spokesman said that the party would not spend “anything like” the permitted £4 million total on a campaign to stay. Mr Corbyn, who has previously advocated leaving the EU, reluctantly agreed not to scrap Labour’s pro-EU campaign body run by Mr Johnson. However, the former home secretary has been left to raise funds directly from donors and unions after receiving only a small start-up donation from Labour HQ.”
If the unions did come out as a group for Brexit, that would make life tricky for Jeremy Corbyn in lots of ways. It would also further agitate inner-Labour tensions as you would have the unions and the PLP on opposite sides of the Europe debate, with Corbyn stuck in the middle, and the PLP and the unions united on Trident against Corbyn and Labour HQ. How this will all resolve post-referendum will be interesting to watch. One way or another, it has to (especially on the Trident issue).
A lot has been said about the EU referendum and its aftermath destroying or splitting the Conservative Party. How ironic would it be then if the Tories hold together just fine while it is Labour who tear themselves apart over Europe. As a pro-European, I hope the unions see sense on this issue. But I’m not counting on it. An anti-EU trade unionist stance could end up being a lot worse for Labour than the UK’s continuing membership of the EU, however.