Who would you trust more – a politician or the person appointed to speak up on your behalf at work?
That is the question which prompted ten trade union leaders to make a rare joint appeal to their members to vote for Britain to stay in the EU. The answer, of course, is that many people put more faith in their shop steward than either the local MP or a politician with a national role who they do not know personally.
So the warning issued by the general secretaries of Unite, Unison, GMB and Usdaw, as well as six others – that a vote for Brexit could lead to a bonfire of workers’ rights – may prove an influential moment in the EU referendum race. And, with the opinion polls seemingly neck-and-neck, it could prove a decisive one.
Campaigners, whether from Labour In or the Britain Stronger in Europe group, understand the impact of the vast mandate held by trade union bosses. Together the ten leaders represent more than six million members and can speak to an audience who have put their trust in them to preserve their jobs and fight for better pay and conditions.
Many – although not all union members – will be Labour voters and it is those in red who appear to be undecided on whether to back In or Out. Tory voters, with often entrenched views on the EU, will have made up their mind days, weeks or even decades ago.
Labour voters are central to the outcome of the referendum. Many are torn between, on one hand, the party’s spirit of internationalism and long history of co-operation between nations and, on the other, the unsettling impact of mass immigration from the EU on wages and local communities. As is so often the case, Tony Blair looms large, in particular his government’s decision to waive transitional controls on workers coming here when 10 Eastern European nations joined the EU in 2004. Defiant as ever, the former prime minister said last month the economic migrants “contribute far more in taxes than they ever take in benefits”.
So it is no surprise Labour voters are now being bombarded with daily messages from prominent union leaders and MPs over the dangers of an Out vote. Tom Watson and Jeremy Corbyn have led the warnings from the PLP of the impact of a Brexit on workers’ rights and tomorrow Heidi Alexander, the shadow Health Secretary, will pick up the baton with a reminder of the “very real threat” to the NHS. It is no surprise, and no bad thing, that John McDonnell has taken to referring to a Leave vote as a “Tory Brexit”.
Members of the shadow Cabinet are right to issue these warnings – but many of them will still be greeted with a shrug by some Labour voters who don’t accept or don’t listen to the speeches of politicians. So we are back to the unions, whose membership far exceeds that of the Labour Party, which is thought to number between 380,000 and 400,000.
Trade unions can speak to the daily concerns of millions of workers. Whether we are concerned about the basics of pay, hours, conditions, security of employment or darker issues such as bullying or management misconduct, we put our faith in unions to argue on our behalf in the office, on the factory floor and in Westminster.
Members also know that while Labour MPs are hard-working and dedicated to the fight for social justice, it is their shop steward or regional organiser who might know more about the individual concerns they have in their workplace. Unions are often closer to what is going on. I have been a union member throughout my entire working life and, when I was involved in a long-running industrial dispute at a previous employer in 2009, it was to my local reps that I turned for a realistic appraisal of our office, our area of the business and the performance of the group of companies of which we were a part, as well as the effects of technological and market changes.
The ten trade union leaders were correct to argue in The Guardian this week that “Europe needs to change”. The failures of the EU range from its response to the financial crisis to the errors and waste in its €130bn annual budget. Britain needs to play a bigger part in reforming the EU because the alternative, of a Tory Brexit which would “negotiate away our rights”, is unattractive and unacceptable. If you are still making up your mind then ask yourself another question about a vote to leave: Who would you trust more to defend your rights at work – your shop steward or Iain Duncan Smith?