May I start by expressing Unite’s shock at the death of Jo Cox and our deepest sympathy to her family. We can only hope that the outpouring of grief from across the nation will help Jo’s husband, Brendan and his family in these unbearable times.
Her death places in context what is really important in our lives.
She was, of course, a passionate advocate for the Remain campaign and would surely want political debate to continue.
Brothers and Sisters,
As this referendum campaign draws towards a close, I think everyone can agree on two things.
First, it matters. As we come up close to the moment of decision, this feels like one of the most important votes any of us will cast in our lives.
And second, this is close. The elite complacency of the start of the campaign, that this was just a quick canter to the winning post for Remain, has disappeared.
This could go either way.
For those two reasons, I wanted to speak out directly, both to and on behalf of the members of Unite, the biggest trade union in the United Kingdom, also as someone who can legitimately claim to know the hopes and fears of the working-class communities across the country, the sort of community I grew up in and have kept my roots in.
There is no need for a spoiler alert – Unite is fighting all the way for a Remain vote, and for Britain and British workers to build their future in unity with the rest of Europe.
But I have not come here to lecture or to patronise those working people who take a different view. Who can be surprised that in so many industrial areas, voting for the status quo is not exactly a popular option?
I am just asking all those people, including many Unite members, to reflect on their concerns, and whether they would be best addressed by staying in Europe, or by a Brexit.
And I want to flag up what I believe will happen to working people on the morrow of a vote to leave.
Let me turn first to the issue of IMMIGRATION.
Some pundits and commentators, like explorers returning from a visit to the deep unknown, are stunned to find that this has become an issue.
I for one am not in the least surprised. I understand those concerns. They are NOT, for the greatest part, anything to do with racism or xenophobia.
They are to do with the systematic attempt by our greedy elite to hold down wages and cut the costs of social provision for working people.
Let us be clear – what has been done in the last ten years is a gigantic experiment at the expense of ordinary workers. Countries with vast historical differences in wage rates and living standards have been brought together in a common labour market. The result has been huge downward pressure on living standards.
What happens when two hundred workers are competing for jobs where previously only ten did? Wages are frozen or cut.
What happens when workers can move from a country where a job pays £5 an hour to one where the same job pays £20? The answer is that many do so move, and the same job then ends up paying just £12 an hour.
That is why trade unions have never been in favour of a so-called free labour market. Control of the labour supply in an industry or across society has always been the core of our mission, to ensure that workers get their fair share of the wealth they create.
But let me be clear about something else. Pulling up the drawbridge against the rest of Europe is the wrong answer.
The right answer is the same one we used when migrants from Ireland were vilified in the last century.
The same answer when Jewish immigrants were targeted a century ago.
The same answer when Asian and Afro-Caribbean workers were attacked in the fifties, sixties and beyond.
That is trade union organisation. Strong collective bargaining. The rate for the job, whoever you are and wherever you come from.
It is putting a strong platform – in law, and in our own organisation – underneath the pay rates and working conditions of all working people.
Look at conditions at the Sports Direct warehouse at Shirebrook. The migrant workers getting robbed and abused are not to blame for that. Mike Ashley and his managers are the villains.
And Ashley isn’t scared of Brexit. He’s scared of Unite organising Shirebrook.
Getting rid of immigrants won’t improve conditions there – getting rid of bad bosses will.
For that we need unity. Solidarity. Traditional working class values.
Values shared by working people across Europe. Being fought for by our brothers and sisters in France today.
Will our fight to restore our rights and rebuild trade union strength be made easier by leaving the European Union? Will the regulation of the labour market be helped by quitting?
No it won’t. The opposite in fact.
It will hand power to those most opposed to any advance for working people, and cut us off from our natural allies in the fight for social justice.
Leaving the EU will not stop the supply of cheap labour coming to Britain. The elite found such labour in the past without the EU, and will find it again.
The answer – the ONLY answer – is strong trade unionism, collective bargaining that covers all workers, our principles of social equality and powerful resistance to a system which puts profit first and people second.
I have said it before and I repeat it now – if this country, the fifth richest in the world, could guarantee all of its people the simple things of a decent job and a decent home as a right, then the concerns about migration would be reduced to a very small racist rump.
The idea that leaving the EU is a short-cut to social justice is a cruel con-trick by the right-wing of the Tory party and the hate-filled Murdoch media.
We have to stay true to our values and keep our eye on the prize – workers united for a better world!
Brothers and sisters,
I would like to refer to a couple of other issues:
First, the argument about workers’ rights.
It is true that workers have only ever got the rights we have fought for, whether in Europe or here at home. No saviour from on high delivers them.
It is also true that the rights we have guaranteed under EU legislation would not necessarily disappear overnight if we leave.
But these are very short-sighted arguments.
Is it better to fight for our rights TOGETHER with trade unions across Europe, or each of us in our own little corner?
And will it be easier to defend those rights in Britain – under a Tory government, remember – with solidarity across the continent, or without?
Have no doubt, the people leading the Leave campaign have those rights in their sights. Priti Patel, a minister who seems to hate trade unions with every bone in her body, let the cat out of the bag when she talked of how much money could be saved by scrapping employment and social protections.
Those who dismiss such a possibility seem to have forgotten the basic beliefs of our movement.
Unity is strength.
All for one and one for all.
The defence of our rights is best done by working through common institutions with our brothers and sisters across Europe, rather than leaving us to do the best we can against rampant reaction at home.
I have been in enough multinational boardrooms fighting for the future of our factories to know that raising this issue is not scare-mongering.
When the big investment decisions are made, particularly in manufacturing, Britain will be heading to the back of the queue if we stand outside the European market.
A Brexit will immediately cast a long shadow over factories across the country – yes, those owned abroad, but also many run from here in London.
Don’t rely on any patriotism or sentiment from the bosses.
And don’t imagine this Tory government, which hates the notion of intervention or of an industrial strategy, will come riding to the rescue.
Would British industry survive? Yes, probably, in the long run. But as Keynes said, in the long run we are all dead and a generation would be blighted in the meantime.
Britain needs all the skilled manufacturing jobs it can get.
Brexit is playing Russian roulette with our industrial base.
Finally, let me say a word about the immediate politics of the situation.
We are not just talking about any old Brexit this week.
We are talking about a Tory Brexit.
It was Karl Marx who said people make their own history, but not in circumstances of their own choosing.
Never was that truer than now.
We will not be walking out of the EU and into a British Socialist republic.
We will in fact be walking into a very British coup.
In which the far right of the Conservative Party will make a bid for power.
Not by winning an election – they know they would never get voted into office.
But by pushing out David Cameron and taking over.
People may say – so what? David Cameron will get what he deserves for putting Party before country.
He has mortgaged Britain’s future to pay off his political creditors in the Conservative Party.
But we cannot afford to indulge that attitude.
Already the Tory Brexit gang are setting out their programme for government.
Announcing what Bills they will bring forward, what their spending priorities will be. As if Cameron and Osborne did not exist anymore.
We cannot afford to have employment rights in the unrestricted hands of Priti Patel.
We cannot afford to leave the BBC to John Whittingdale’s tender mercies.
How many wars would a neo-con like Liam Fox get us into?
And would this crowd really ease up on austerity?
As for the NHS, anyone who thinks that it will be safe with these hard-core privatisers is smoking something funny in their roll-ups.
So it is true that we owe Cameron nothing – I only hope he learns from his political near-death experience, and realises that “one nation” is not compatible with the petty, peevish partisan legislation he has been bringing forward on one issue after another over the last year.
But whether or not the penny drops in Downing Street, we do owe the British people a clear warning against the dangers of walking out of the EU and into the arms or those who only think Maggie Thatcher didn’t go far enough.
Brexit MAY lead to an early election.
But it will certainly lead to an early shift to the right.
A shift no trade unionist can afford.
Brothers and sisters,
I am not a partisan of Project Fear.
All my life, I have been on the side of Project Hope.
Because of my confidence in the values and the initiative of working people.
And my final appeal is on the basis of hope.
The hope that rests on -
Our commitment to democracy and social justice.
Our belief that the only race is the human race.
That ours is one world.
That the working class should unite across borders.
That the EU as it stands is not the EU that it can and will be if we work together.
That if we vote to Remain we defeat the reactionary right.
And open the way for a Britain of justice, of trade unionism renewed in a Europe focussed on a better future for working people everywhere.
A Europe in which we can say – yes, the elite has failed.
But we will not let their failure drive us apart.
A Europe of working people united for jobs, justice and peace.