News & Analysis

The first fruits of Brexit: 48-hr week under attack

08 February 2021
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Just days before the end of the “transition period” and with almost no serious discussion, Parliament voted by 521 to 73 to accept a trade deal with the EU. Today, a matter of weeks later, the poisoned fruits of Brexit are beginning to ripen.

They are exactly what those of us who campaigned against it predicted. The promised freedom and sovereignty which induced so many to vote leave have turned out to be the bosses’ freedom and claimed right to shake off the restrictions on exploitation: exactly the reason they have always backed Brexit.

The first assault, according to the Financial Times, will include scrapping the maximum 48-hour week as well as certain rules around rest breaks at work and holiday pay entitlement. The free marketeers in Johnson’s cabinet are delighted, and the Adam Smith Institute duly heralds the coming removal of this “straitjacket on the economy”.

Labour’s business secretary, Ed Miliband, has accused the Tories of “taking a sledgehammer to workers’ rights”. True enough, but this comes a bit late from a party which insisted it would accept the “will of the people” after the referendum and indulged arguments from within the labour movement that Brexit would bring “liberation from the bosses’ Europe”. The very day after the vote, Jeremy Corbyn himself announced that, “of course, free movement will end with Brexit”.

Indeed, the end of free movement is yet another tragic consequence of Brexit which is already underway. Combined with the effects of the pandemic, it has led to 1.3 million immigrants leaving the country in 2020, contributing to an 8% fall in London’s population. Of course, some may return if the economy picks up with the easing of covid restrictions, but those who do not have “settled status” will have to apply for work visas.

Many have gone for good. Given the severe staff shortages in the NHS and social care, as well as in other skilled industries like construction, the absence of many of these workers will soon begin to hamper any attempt to “build back better”.

Thus far the economic effects of Brexit have been obscured by the covid crisis – everything can be blamed on the virus. But, even allowing for a late spring economic recovery, the severing of economic links with the destination for 40% of British exports will bring disruptive and destructive consequences for years to come.

Johnson’s cabinet of hard-faced neoliberals has already announced that it will try to make up for losses elsewhere by establishing “free ports” – customs-free zones acting as havens for money laundering and tax avoidance.

Even if Joe Biden were willing to do an “historic” trade deal with a man who was until last year Trump’s fawning imitator, it will surely come alongside access for US multinationals to the NHS, education and other public services, plus a lowering of food safety and environmental standards to US levels. As for Labour’s “new management”, they will wring their hands in parliament no doubt. But as for a fight, no chance.

If we really want to stop the Tories’ assaults on workers’ rights and on the rights of our fellow workers from across the Channel, we will need to rebuild militant workplace organisation from the ground up. And we will need to reverse Starmer’s crackdown on democracy in what is supposed to be the “political party of the working class” – that or build a new party that can fight.

The voices that should definitely not be allowed to set the strategy for resistance are the former Lexiteers, including the Morning Star, Socialist Worker, the Socialist, plus a good part of the Labour Left. We do not need branded exercises like People Before Profit or talking shops like the People’s Assembly with platforms dominated by union general secretaries and left MPs, organised by the CPB. They helped get us into this mess by sacrificing international workers’ solidarity for the empty dream of a Corbyn government, nationalising utilities, and building socialism in one country.

As soon as it is safe, we need face-to-face gatherings of rank and file militants to plan mass actions to defeat the Tories. We need to fight each and every attack on our rights, whether we wrung them out of Westminster or (with the aid of European workers) gained them from Brussels. We need a militant class struggle organised around an action programme of workers’, women’s, BAME, and consumers’ rights, plus measures to prevent environmental catastrophe.

We can start to build this movement at workplace and community level – to organise the unemployed, resist privatisation, defend and extend workplace safety and employment rights. Such a movement must not be afraid to name the enemy, capitalism, and also the solution, socialism. And that much-misused word must mean a socially owned and democratically planned economy.

Last, but not least, we will need comradeship and organisation with our fellow workers in Europe, the USA and around the world to take joint action across borders and unleash our real collective strength. Such ambitious goals are essential to recovering the fighting spirit of our class, embodied in the struggles of the 1920s, the 1970s and ’80s, and the anti-capitalist and anti-war movements of the first decade of the new millennium. We – the workers of all nations – are immeasurably stronger together.

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