The authoritative source for independent research on UK-EU relations

Background to the referendum

UK in a Changing Europe (UKICE): You’ve been involved in the trade union movement all your life. In 1975, the TUC wanted the UK to leave the Common Market, but by 2016, it was officially for Remain.

Could you talk us through when the big shift happened, that the TUC thought being a member of the European Union was a good thing, rather than something to be avoided?

Frances O’Grady (FO’G): Well, my personal reference point, which I like to cite, because it puts it in perspective, for me, at least, is the 1975 European Communities referendum. My dad was a T&G steward at Cowley. He, along with his union and the TUC, was anti the European Economic Community (EEC). He had a sticker on his moped saying ‘No to the Rich Man’s Club’. At the same time, I was interested in the world and trade unionism, and I had come across – I still don’t know how, and I still want to track this down – a photograph of women, I think in Belgium, holding up this placard saying: ‘Give us Article 119’.

My first thought was: ‘What’s Article 119?’. Then I found out that this was about equal pay for work of equal value – which had been a big issue, obviously, at Dagenham – and that this was enshrined in the Treaty of Rome. It got me interested. So, I ended up, aged 16, perhaps inevitably, on the opposite side of the referendum to my dad, although with no right to vote.

In some ways, that story explains the development of thinking in the trade union movement. Originally many felt that the EEC was very much about a market where the benefits did not trickle down to workers in a fair way. Then we had the experience of Thatcherism, which had a big impact on my family, and the beginnings of neo-liberalism, and all of that.

So, then in 1988, Jacques Delors addresses the TUC Congress, and uses a famous phrase: ‘Nobody ever falls in love with the market’ and he makes a big commitment to the social dimension of Europe, workers’ rights, workers’ voice, and the right for every worker to be covered by a collectively bargained agreement.

I think in the trade union movement, we always pride ourselves on being principled pragmatists. Having experienced the onslaught of Thatcherism, anti-trade union laws, and big conflicts like the miners’ strike, the European social model offered an opportunity to create a better deal for working people in this country.

There was trade union pragmatism, but also increasingly the appeal of workers across borders, being able to combine and use our industrial and political power to create a level playing field and to raise pay and conditions of workers across the continent. That was, obviously, a very, very important moment for the trade union movement.

And the EU social dimension did make a difference. Both as a trade union activist and, later, working for the trade union movement, there were issues I felt passionate about – like maternity rights, and equal rights for part-time workers, equal value – when EU Directives and caselaw made a positive difference to working lives.

So, even with a hostile government in Downing Street, we could organise across the EU and win stronger rights for workers.

UKICE: So, having come round and seen the concrete benefits of EU membership, what did you think when David Cameron stood up at Bloomberg in 2013, when you’d just started as General Secretary of the TUC, and put UK membership on the line? Did you think, ‘That’s okay, that’s just an internal Conservative Party row, nothing to see here’? Or did you start to get worried then?

FO’G: I was worried, immediately. I’d already met David Cameron as Deputy General Secretary. I was born and brought up in Oxford, and so I was quite familiar with a particular character trait, if you like, of very privileged people, going through very privileged institutions, who liked to gamble, because they would never have to personally live with the consequences of that gamble.

So, I saw this as primarily an exercise for Cameron in party management, you know, the people ‘banging on about Europe’. He was, from his perspective, taking them on. But he was doing so against the backdrop of the financial crash and the consequences, and in particular austerity and the behaviour, of the Troika.

If you’re going to test public opinion at a time when workers’ wages were already falling behind, when people had seen public services cut to shreds, and when many of us, for example, of Irish or Greek heritage had seen somewhat vividly what had happened in those countries – in Ireland, restructuring took place, almost entirely on the back of worker’s wages – it was clear that this was not a good time to test public love of the EU. So, politically, it seemed tone deaf.

But yes, that sense of, ‘You’ve let this genie out of the bottle’ – how do I say this, tactfully? Within the Conservative Party, English nationalism has a particular history and brand that is not always open to rational argument. So, it felt dangerous. Straight away it felt dangerous. I do remember, as our position evolved, really trying to pin him [David Cameron] down and get an early commitment to protect workers’ rights.

I was very conscious that there were elements growing in power within the Conservative Party who saw Brexit as a great opportunity to let the market rip, and worsen working lives.

UKICE: Were you concerned, after he won a majority, about what he might do in the renegotiation with the EU?

FO’G: Yes. I wrote to him, specifically, on workers’ rights. Like I say, in a public way, trying to force the issue. I can’t remember when ‘Britannia Unchained’ was published, but that school of thought was certainly growing in influence and outrageousness on the Conservative backbenches. So, we were trying to secure commitments, early on, and flush out what this was really about.

But in any case, we no longer felt that the PM was a man in charge of his own destiny.

UKICE: Were you at all sympathetic to his attempts to restrict free movement, in the sense of limiting the attractiveness of coming over to the UK? That does seem to be one of the things that tipped quite a lot of Labour voters, working class voters, into supporting Leave.

FO’G: At the TUC, there was, a pragmatic assessment of the number of other countries which took a much more measured approach to free movement, in respect of the accession countries, in particular. Whereas that staged approach wasn’t something that Britain adopted. But fundamentally, our position had always been, and I personally believe this very passionately, that while there will always be employers who look to drive down pay for example, by importing labour on lower rates that approach is not confined to exploitation of migrant workers. Those employers also look to exploit women through low and unequal pay, and it’s enshrined in our law that young workers get a lower minimum wage. So, geography is only one aspect of that employer behaviour. The trade union response, and in my view, the best response, is securing guarantees of equal pay, and equal pay in its broadest sense.

The answer is securing the rate for the job, organising workers into unions and having a framework of law that makes it easy to organise workers. That way we can push back against the bad employer, and ensure that all workers, regardless of the passport they hold, get a fair rate for the job. That was our position.

The referendum

UKICE: I just want to move onto the referendum itself. David Cameron brings back his renegotiation, and you have the date for the referendum announced. The TUC, I think, registered for Remain, but some high-profile unionists and union leaders came out for Leave. How hard it was to come to an official position, and whether you had arguments to try to get some of those union leaders onside?

FO’G: Remember, there were only 3 unions out of around 50 who supported Leave. ASLEF, RMT and the Bakers (BFAWU). Obviously important unions and battalions of the TUC, but small in terms of our overall membership. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t pretend it was an easy decision for the TUC Executive and General Council to take.

There were a number of concerns. Some unions felt they’d had their fingers burnt in the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum, and generally, we have an understandable wariness about constitutional issues that tend to split people down the middle, because we exist to unite working people. So, there is an understandable caution from the trade union movement.

As I say, some unions felt that the position they’d supported, in respect of Scotland, had been won, but at what cost – divided membership. And I can recite to you the imperfections of the EU; that the social dimension had not been renewed and reinvigorated to keep pace with rising inequality and insecurity; that we had had austerity and the appalling actions of the Troika; and that we’d had unhelpful case law, in the cases of Viking Line and Laval [on the right to strike].

And a number of our unions felt that the push for privatisation, for example, of mail and rail, originated from that liberalising approach that took hold within the EU. Very often led, of course, by the UK.

The private discussions we had internally were very respectful and rooted in our role as a trade union movement to represent the best interests of working people. I guess, my key argument was, if we left the EU, would working people be better off or worse off? It wasn’t black and white, it wasn’t simple, but nevertheless, we had an obligation, in representing working people, to come to a decision and recommendation. We set tests to help us come to a judgement. For this issue, we set ourselves three, very simple tests: one on jobs, one on workers’ rights and one on the Good Friday Agreement.

When I was Head of Organisation, we’d set up a shadow Council of the Isles, to support the Good Friday Agreement. It was a gesture, in many ways, but actually, it worked brilliantly. It helped deepen and strengthen that relationship, including, of course, with the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. We had, over history, worked together. So, the impact of leaving on the Good Friday Agreement was an important test for us, too.

On top of that, increasingly, you could see this English nationalist tendency, grabbing control of the Conservative Party. Obviously, this wasn’t true for everybody involved in the Leave campaign, but the commanding heights, as it were, had been taken by people who wanted to see a kind of country that certainly would not improve the lives of working people. On the contrary, they saw Brexit as an opportunity to increase inequality and poverty, and to attack workers’ rights and trade unions, which are working people’s last line of defence.

So, we came to a position, after a lot of careful discussion, that we would support Remain, but that we would retain our distinct voice. It was important to us that we didn’t just sign up to the official Remain campaign. Because, again, if you looked at the funding for the two campaigns, this is very crude – it looked like a battle of the hedge funds versus the banks.

Neither prospect filled us with great confidence. So, we thought it was also important that we retained our own distinct voice.

UKICE: What did you make of the official Remain campaign?

FO’G: Well, I could kick myself, because I think it took us too long to realise that there were some underlying assumptions, in some quarters, that this vote would be won by Tory-voting, younger professionals. The great unwashed wouldn’t turn out to vote. I think there was a lot of snobbery underlying the campaign, and a degree of detachment from what was happening to people’s lives and wage packets, and how people were feeling.

So, I know it’s, perhaps, unfair, but I remember when Stuart Rose and one of the official Remain campaign’s key spokespeople, was reported as saying that freedom of movement kept wages low with the implication that that was a good thing. You could not make it up. Who are you trying to win? Business leaders only get one vote each.

We knew something was wrong with the official Remain campaign, but I think it took us too long to wake up to the idea that it was a calculation that working class people would stay at home.

UKICE: It wasn’t a calculation Vote Leave were making, because they always seemed to be quite good at mobilising working class voters.

FO’G: No, and again, you only had to look at what was going on in council estates and workplaces, to see what was happening. Obviously, I went around the country talking to different groups of workers. For example, some steel workers – now, for me, it was another big fat lie of the Leave campaign that state aid rules were preventing support for the steel industry.

It was the UK that was lobbying against EU tariffs to prevent the dumping of Chinese steel, that was the truth. But it was very hard to get that across, in the face of people who are prepared to tell lies and tell them big.

UKICE: So, your most high-profile moment in the campaign was in that great debate at Wembley, just a week or so before the vote. Did you think it was a lost cause by then, or did you have any qualms about taking part in that debate?

FO’G: Well, I didn’t go on the official bus, because again, we were keeping our separate voice. I was very conscious of being the only non-politician. Of course, it was, personally, daunting. The BBC had chosen to separate the audience. On one side was Remain and on one side were the Leave supporters. So, the audience was, literally, divided down the middle against each other.

There was a moment when it was very, very noisy, and I remember a BBC producer saying, ‘Don’t worry about the barracking when you step out on stage, because we’ll screen that out when it’s broadcast’. So, like I say, at a personal level it was quite daunting. I remember Ruth Davidson giving the summing up speech. She was very good. I remember when [Boris] Johnson gave his summing up speech, and as we now know, he could have gone either way, depending on what was best for Boris.

But I do remember feeling, as he gave that ‘Independence Day’ speech ‘We’ve lost it’. I remember when I was first going round workplaces and people would talk to me about sovereignty, and I was like, ‘What?’. I hadn’t ever heard anybody talk about that before.

It took me too long to understand what, now, everybody talks about: that the Brexit campaign became a proxy for the fact that people felt they had no power, no voice. Living in communities where multinational companies could ship in and ship out and warehouses where young people were employed on zero hours contracts. There was that kind of sense of, ‘We do want to take back control. We want more control, and we want respect’.

The more some people on the Remain side talked down to people, I could feel it too. I’ve personally felt disgruntled about that, kind of, ‘We know best’ attitude.

UKICE: Where were you on the night?

FO’G: I deliberately was at home, watching the telly, and I remember my heart sinking. I was worried about the impact not just on jobs and so on, or on the economy, but on society. This is, perhaps, an obvious thing to say, but if you got a 52/48 result in a ballot, as a trade union leader, that was your worst nightmare.

You know that your membership is divided. The decision may not go your way, and that’s bad enough, but the disunity is your biggest problem. I’d witnessed it myself, personally. I remember doing interviews in the following days, and them using clips of Portuguese shop owners, who immediately after the referendum result had been subject to horrible abuse.

Rail unions told us about station staff where these big guys went up to an Eastern European worker and asked ‘When are you going home?’. It was getting really nasty.

Brexit negotiations under Theresa May

UKICE: I’m very intrigued by you saying that, as a trade unionist, 52/48 was your worst nightmare. What were your expectations of how the government might start to handle the negotiations, given that it had been landed with this 52/48 vote?

FO’G: In trade union terms, and I know it’s not a direct comparison, but I think it’s a useful reference point, if you’ve got that kind of result on a ballot, you would tread really, really carefully. There’s no point getting everybody to walk out immediately if you know that a very, very sizeable minority are not happy with walking out.

So, you might well look for more negotiation, you might look for compromises, and you would set out to narrow the gap within your membership, because in the end, it’s your membership that matters most, and unity that matters most. I think there is not a complete read-across, but there is a read-across that your expectation would be that the fundamentalists are going to have to quieten down a bit, because we’re going to have find an agreed way forward as this is a generational decision.

You’ve got to be sensitive to the fact that Scotland and Northern Ireland did not vote for this too. And what I think is really important, because it’s sometimes not acknowledged in the script around Brexit, is that, actually, a majority of people in work voted for Remain. We tracked trade union membership opinion throughout, and I’ll be honest, at the beginning of the campaign it was about 50/50, but we got it to 60/40 pro Remain.

So, there were significant groups of people making up that 48%. So, as I say, in the trade union world, you would go very, very carefully with that result. But instead, what we got, was this increasing absolutism, fundamentalism, ‘Brexit means Brexit’. I think I do remember saying, ‘I could just say ‘a strike means a strike’, but at some point, you have to explain what it is you’re aiming for.

UKICE: In September 2016, I think you made a speech saying Labour was too internally focused, and that you wanted a seat for the trade unions at the negotiating table. Were you being at all talked to by government?

FO’G: Yes, I met Theresa May a couple of times. I’d met [Jean-Claude] Juncker and [Michel] Barnier. The other thing people don’t always get about the trade union movement is that we’re a member of the European TUC, which obviously has a specific status and role in the EU as a social partner. That kind of opened doors for us, in capitals all over the European Union, but also within the Parliament, within the Commission and so on.

So, we did have very good access, and probably better access than we had at home. I did meet Theresa May. Remember, at the start of this, we were told that Brexit could mean being like Norway. So, again, there were alternatives, in respect of our relationship with the single market and customs union. That could have been considered as part of that narrowing of the gap, and trying to reunite the country, but weren’t.

By then it was all too late. The ultras had taken over. Again, Theresa May was no longer in charge of her own destiny. I know one of your questions was about her red lines. As a trade unionist, as a negotiator, if you set yourself so many red lines, you’re dead. You haven’t got a hope of meeting the membership’s expectations, or any room for manoeuvre.

What are you trading? How do you come to an agreement? It was increasingly just looking awful. At the TUC, we’d set ourselves some very simple tests for what a good deal – and for all the sorts of trade deals that the Conservative government would be doing – would look like: on workers’ rights, jobs and the Good Friday Agreement tests, plus our concerns about public services and privatisation.

We returned to that regularly, as a way of assessing how bad things were getting, because they were getting bad. My memory of that time is a concern that the disintegration of the Conservative Party would end up being infectious. If the Labour Party ended up as divided, that would be bad for the broader labour movement.

So, I think, my key message then was to cut the self-pity, cut the injured feelings, and remember that we’re a broad church. You know, as I say, within the General Council there were three, very important voices, who were pro-Brexit. But we managed to stay together, treat each other with respect and stay united. So, I think I was, probably, giving that kind of message to the Party.

UKICE: Were you a bit frustrated? You came out, I think, in September 2017, calling for the UK to stay in the single market. But Labour was very reluctant to say that, and a lot of Labour MPs felt they couldn’t suggest that they would accept freedom of movement. Did you have long discussions with Labour over their position on the single market?

We’ve finally got Jeremy Corbyn saying something on that in February 2018 when he finally set out a Labour position on customs union membership.

FO’G: What we knew was the only guarantee of a level playing field on workers’ rights, was continued membership of the single market. I think I was also always very careful to say, ‘This is what we want. If you can come up with a different deal that delivers it that’s different, fantastic. We’re not precious about the method, but we are precious about sticking up for the workers’ rights’.

So, when you reflect on it, it was impossible, wasn’t it, for everybody? Then, of course, as I remember, and it may not be right, but as I remember, it quickly shifted into a concern around the threat of no deal, at all, of bloody chaos. I think, Ruth Davidson had the best line about the picture of Michael Gove and Boris Johnson, the morning after the referendum result, about how they looked like a couple of teenage arsonists.

Anyway, it was spot on. The threat of no-deal was just like, ‘Oh, my God, this is going to be bad for jobs’. For a trade unionist of my generation, what’s the biggest threat? Mass unemployment, manufacturing companies going down the tubes. This was all beginning to look really desperate. So that became a priority.

UKICE: Given all that, I’m quite intrigued by what sort of links or conversations you had with the big employer organisations, like the CBI and maybe some of the smaller ones. There were some areas where you seemed to be making common cause with the CBI in particular.

FO’G: Yes. Carolyn Fairbairn was appointed as the Director General. So, there we were, two first-ever women in role, and we got on, and managed to build up a relationship. You can be representing different interests, but still have a good faith relationship. So, we were able to make joint interventions, which I was always judging against our TUC tests.

But on issues like EU citizens’ rights, the importance of protecting our manufacturing industry, a number of interventions were possible. But it was all pretty grim, I have to admit, by that stage. It was not looking great.

UKICE: As you saw the Conservative Party tearing itself to bits over the Theresa May deal, did you really think that they were going to go for no-deal, or that they’d go for no-deal intentionally, maybe even accidentally?

FO’G: I think an accidental no-deal was a real possibility. We were, meanwhile, having a whole round of meetings in Europe, and trying to use our cross-border leverage to ensure that we got level playing field clauses within any UK-EU deal. That was a modest but important achievement for us, which again, is probably not trumpeted, but should be.

That was very much a collective effort of the trade union movement across Europe, to ensure that the deal enshrined those clauses that would, at least, provide some routes for us to challenge attacks on workers’ rights.

UKICE: Given that you’re quite pro-staying in the single market, I wonder what you actually thought of the substance of the Theresa May Chequers proposals. That, basically, kept the UK in the single market for goods, and had the common rule book, and would have had the UK signing up to a lot of level playing field provisions. Did you actually think, ‘This is not bad. Maybe Labour should come out and support that. Maybe we should be more positive about that’?

FO’G: I remember feeling quite concerned that there was a lot of discussion about the customs union, which was important for goods, and particular industries. But as I say, the only thing that would guarantee workers’ rights was single market membership. Progressively, it was clear that that was just not going to be a runner.

UKICE: Theresa May, when she was trying to get her deal through, was talking to some Labour MPs about protections she might put in. Was she involving you at all in that?

FO’G: I did have a meeting with her, with a small but high level TUC delegation, at that time. I have to say, my assessment was that that she was open to discussions. But I thought, by that point, ‘She’s lost it’. She wasn’t in control of her own side. Again, as trade unionists, you’ve got to know that the person across the table is capable of delivering on a deal. By that point, I thought she wasn’t.

UKICE: So, how did you start moving the TUC towards supporting a second referendum?

FO’G: Well, it wasn’t quite as simple as that. Our position was: ‘Here are our tests. If you don’t come back with a deal that meets working people’s interests on jobs rights, and protects the Good Friday Agreement, then we reserve our right to lend our support to the People’s Vote, or our preference, a general election’. I have to say, by that stage, they were in disarray again. But – hope triumphing over experience, maybe – we thought, ‘If we’re going to make a gamble, let’s have the gamble that we get a Labour government’.

UKICE: Was that very controversial? I can see the general election not being so controversial, but what about supporting another referendum?

FO’G: Well, everything we do is agreed at the General Council. But I think there were some unions who were, understandably, very concerned about association with the People’s Vote, in that it could look like it was sticking up two fingers to those who had voted Leave.

Age was also really important, when you look at the demographics of who voted which way. Very often, media commentators would talk about the working-class vote. But it was much more complicated than that. The working class Remain vote tended to be younger. The working class Leave vote was more likely to be older or retired, or trades people. But without doubt, even in terms of the trade union movement, even though we could show we’d got 60% who were on board with Remain, it still means you’ve got 40% who were not.

Even if the government wasn’t showing any respect to those who voted Remain, we had to show respect to those who voted Leave within our own ranks. So, it was increasingly uncomfortable, and I guess there was that feeling that a general election would be a much cleaner approach.


Boris Johnson, the 2019 general election and the pandemic

UKICE: Eventually, Theresa May has run into the brick wall with her deal, and is replaced by Boris Johnson. Then, we have the autumn conference where Labour shifted its position on a second referendum. What did you make of that shift of position?

FO’G: I think, on reflection, it’s a bit like the Good Friday Agreement. It was always going to be difficult. The Windsor Agreement is only the least worst option. Pretending we could retain the benefits of EU membership from outside was always going to be an impossible dream.

When I look back, I don’t want to judge, too harshly, decisions people were trying to make in real time, to sort out a massive mess, at a point when English nationalism was calling the shots. I do, vividly remember, having debates about what ‘no deal’ would mean for workers and the country. It was like, ‘I can’t believe we’re having to debate this’.

UKICE: Parliament is being pressured by the Johnson administration to allow a general election and the opposition parties are resisting. I think you then said, ‘Don’t have a general election until we’re sure that no-deal is off the table, or that we’re guaranteed an extension’.

FO’G: There actually was a real concern about that. Again, we were aware that there were elements within the Conservative Party who thought they’d let the clock run down.

UKICE: Did you think that Johnson might, deliberately, go for no-deal, whereas Theresa May might have been trapped into it, against her better judgment?

FO’G: I’m not sure Johnson had a strategy, as such. I think his priority was to stay as leader. Even if that means promising anything to anyone, to stay there. Again, that’s a bit crude, but it’s not too far from the truth. I don’t think his was a principled position. I think he actually enjoyed the chaos. There are people who survive and thrive on that chaos, don’t they?

UKICE: That October, Johnson is forced to ask for an extension through the Benn-Burt Act, and we get an extension. But then, Parliament does concede a general election. What were your thoughts when Johnson finally got the general election he was really keen on?

FO’G: Again, it’s that kind of reverse Midas touch, isn’t it? Although that was the logic of our position – we wanted a general election – by then, you could feel the fragmentation within the country and how hard it was to talk about things that would normally appear in the top three issues of a general election campaign.

Everything was seen through the prism of Brexit and which way you’d voted, and who was trying to snatch that democratic decision away. So, to talk about the NHS and jobs, all of that became much harder. The TUC, as you know, isn’t affiliated to the Labour Party, but our history and our values tell us that workers always do better under Labour. So, we wanted a Labour victory, and we didn’t get it.

UKICE: Do you think that that was just an unwinnable election for Labour, or could a different leader have done a bit better, maybe with a more clear-cut, more comprehensible position on Brexit?

FO’G: This is a personal belief, but there is something about nationalism. Obviously, you can have different kinds of nationalism, but there is something about it that makes life hard for the Left, or certainly for a Left that’s prided itself on a bigger view of the world.

UKICE: What did you think when you saw the results of the election coming in, with, the ‘Red Wall’ crumbling?

FO’G: Oh, God. I remember reading a blog analysis of the results by Professor Danny Dorling. Again, it explained that this was more complicated than some of the headlines suggested. I think, increasingly, there is that kind of complexity, about where people at work are versus working class retired people. But yes, it obviously was bad news. Bad news for the Labour Party and its sense of soul, really.

UKICE: Then, Boris Johnson gets his withdrawal agreement passed in Parliament, in January 2020. Did you engage very much at all with the Johnson government, or with David Frost leading the UK negotiating team, about what would be in the Trade and Cooperation Agreement?

FO’G: I did meet Frost and I did meet Johnson, once. But our key objective, at that point, was to get the strongest possible level playing field clauses in there that we could. Again, in my view, they could have been stronger, but at least they’re there.

UKICE: So, were you talking to the EU, quite a lot, in parallel?

FO’G: Yes. Again, we’re sometimes underestimated as a movement, because people don’t understand that we look to access both sides of the table. I had a number of meetings with Monsieur Barnier, through the ETUC. Our sister trade union congresses were absolutely brilliant in helping us gain access. There was a real sense of solidarity. It wasn’t just idealism.

If the UK ended up undercutting the EU, with worse rights and terms for workers, this would drag us all down. So, there was a material interest, but there was also a hell of a lot of friendship, which continues.

UKICE: Did you ever try to make the argument that making it too difficult for British companies to access the EU might force a government into a deregulatory binge?

FO’G: Oh, absolutely. It’s like you could write the script, really. As I say, by that point, so many of the ‘Britannia Unchained’ authors were sitting at the Cabinet table. So, we were fairly cynical about the direction of travel that the government wanted to take. You know, all that Singapore-on-Thames baloney, and this, kind of ‘Britannia Rules the Waves’, we’ll be getting trade deals every five minutes, the deal is oven-ready, thing.

There was a degree of delusion and carelessness. Of course, ultimately, it was all back to ‘trickle down economics’. As long as big corporations and the wealthy are doing well, everything will be fine, and eventually, the workers will feel some benefit. We’ve never believed it.

UKICE: One of the big contrasts at this time was the way in which the government engaged with external groups, business groups and trade unions over Brexit, compared to the way they seemed to engage over COVID. A lot of us were very impressed when we saw you and Carolyn Fairbairn and Rishi Sunak come out together, to announce furlough.

FO’G: The proposal for a furlough scheme came through the TUC. Again, we are humble about this. We basically cut and pasted the best features of the best schemes around Europe, and published it as a report. To give Sunak his due, I got a call from him that week, and we spoke on the phone, literally going through that TUC report, page-by-page.

I suggested to him [Sunak] that we position this as a tri-party agreement. Obviously, he would use different language, but basically because I wanted to sink roots deep for a furlough scheme – as this was the first time the UK would have ever had such a scheme. We had the brilliant Kate Bell of the TUC who was then Head of Economics, now Assistant General Secretary. She and colleagues went into the Treasury. I suggested the PM hold a meeting with the TUC and CBI to launch the scheme, and he invited the other business organisations, as well.

So, it was very much an idea invented in the trade union movement, but not just in Britain. It wasn’t perfect. We wanted conditionality on skills, for example, and we wanted employers to have to continue training people during downtime, to keep their skills fresh which we didn’t get. But it was, nevertheless, one of the best schemes in Europe. So, that was a big breakthrough for us, and it did save well over 10 million livelihoods and allowed the economy to bounce back quicker.

Our next initiative was to call on the government to set up a national recovery council, bringing together government, employers and unions. It was clear to me that COVID placed a huge strain on public services and key workers. Many were traumatised. And it was clear that we were also paying a price for a failure to invest in our public services and the austerity cuts.

It wasn’t just that people were dealing with an incredible global crisis, they were doing it on too few resources, with too few staff and too little money in their wage packets. So, alongside getting the private sector on its feet again, it seemed to me that a national recovery council would send a signal that COVID had changed everything, and that we had learned the importance of social solidarity, looking after each other, and what really mattered, and the importance of public services.

But that I was unsuccessful in, and then we were then dropped like a hot stone. I think it could have been so different. I’m not saying that we wouldn’t have had a strike wave. But I’ve just been in the House [of Lords] where we’ve been told we will get this workforce strategy for public services soon. You kind of think, ‘We could have had that plan long ago, tried to build a national consensus, recognised that things would have to change’. Workers, I think, would have felt listened to. I’m not saying it would have solved it, I’m just saying it could have been different. The opportunity was there but missed.

Trade and Cooperation Agreement and Brexit aftermath

UKICE: So, we’ve got COVID going on, but we’ve also got negotiations going on about the final deal with the EU. I wonder what you made of Christmas Eve, in 2020, when we finally saw the new Trade and Co-operation Agreement – what was your reaction to that?

FO’G: Well, my reaction is that it gives an incoming Labour government, if we get one, a massive opportunity to improve it and build much stronger relationships with the EU. As I say, our focus at that point was to do the job we were set up to do of, even in these terrible circumstances. ‘What’s the best we can get out of it for workers?’ The level playing field clauses gave us something.

The Level Playing Field provisions’ enforcement and sanctions are nowhere near as strong as they need to be. But actually, again, what is clear, and what a number of ministers haven’t quite twigged, is that the ETUC can make a direct complaint under those procedures, and the TUC, obviously, remains a member of the ETUC. So, that’s quite important. I know that the penny, perhaps, has begun to drop in some areas.

But the government has to make a choice. If you want divergence, and if that involves attacking workers’ collective rights, as in the Strikes Bill, then never mind the technical procedures, you’ll pay a political and economic price. That’s going to be the next chapter, I think, and it will be very interesting to see how that develops.

UKICE: You could argue that, actually, governments make vague suggestions. We had that from Kwasi Kwarteng, didn’t we, as Business Secretary: that they’re going to look again at workers’ rights. Then, there’s a bit of an outcry and they back down instantly.

FO’G: They back off.

UKICE: It’s quite interesting to think that that political argument has to be won in Europe, and is not guaranteed to be won here at home.

FO’G: Well, I suppose it’s puncturing that illusion of absolute sovereignty, isn’t it? Because actually, at one stage the UK government was desperate to be seen to get a deal, or a new relationship, with the US on trade. Now, obviously, there were bigger issues that play there, in terms of Biden and his domestic audience.

But we also had a really strong relationship with Katherine Tai, who is the US Trade Ambassador. She, again, was very close to our sister trade union organisation, the AFL-CIO. She’s been pioneering worker-centred trade policies with the ability to use trade to ratchet up workers’ rights, and obviously their agreement with Mexico has led to direct interventions in companies, to recognise trade unions.

So, again, I think it’s sometimes that lack of knowledge in this government. It’s not realising we, as a trade union movement, have these relationships that are really important. We did get invited to a quad meeting in Aberdeen with the US and the UK, where trade unions were sat at this table to discuss trade. It sent a message, ‘We’re here and we matter’.

The Biden administration is interested in what trade unions think about the UK approach to trade. So, again, it’s the seat at the table demand. But with current UK ministers, it’s that same level of ignorance that I saw, so strongly, in respect of Northern Ireland, which I found completely shocking. I spoke to a number of UK ministers who had no sense of the extent to which Brexit would destabilise things, and no sense of the EU’s proper role in respect of the Good Friday agreement, and how Brexit would destabilise that. Because as a member of the EU, however people identified in Northern Ireland, Irish or British, or both, everybody had shared citizenship of the EU.

Maybe I’m becoming old and grumpy, but that lack of knowledge of our own history, and what people had been through to get us to a better place, was just gobsmacking, really. But it was the same on trade. Like I say, I’ve raised that issue of the level playing field clauses a number of times in this House [the Lords], in respect of both the Strikes Bill and the Retained EU Law Bill.

It’s interesting to watch that knowledge begin to sink in a bit. It all comes down to politics, in the end, whatever is written in the agreement. So, I’m not naïve about this. But nevertheless, yes, I think life is not as easy as saying, ‘We’re out. Brexit means Brexit’.

UKICE: You mentioned that you’ve been able to influence possible trade discussions with the US. We can look at where the UK has struck new trade deals, such as with Australia and New Zealand, or its talks with India, which is quite interesting from the point of view of labour access – to what extent you were being engaged in that? Because within the EU, the trade union movement was a bit sceptical about some aspects of the European trade policy.

FO’G: Yes. Again, there is a kind of global union position, where we’ve been pushing back against secret courts that privilege the interests of multi-national companies over governments, workers and citizens. We’ve been pushing back against privatisation and liberalisation of public services, and increasingly we also pushed the issue on data privacy. That, to me, seems the new lucrative area that everybody is interested in gaining access to, not least to the NHS’s data.

That position has been inspired by the likes of Katherine Tai, who is looking at how trade deals could be used to ratchet up workers’ rights. So, not just, ‘We’re signed up to ILO standards’, but actually using these deals to spread better rights and conditions for workers, and proper sanctions and enforcement mechanisms. So, I would say that’s pretty consistent around the world, as a trade union position, and we’re pretty hot on where the next threat coming from.

But of course, so many of the trade deals that the UK signed up to were just cut and paste, so not huge achievements.

UKICE: We’ve talked a bit about the Retained EU Law Bill as the government’s big flagship attempt to realise Brexit opportunities, and the government is now going to change its approach, as Secretary of State for Business and Trade has explained. What do you think the story of this Bill tells us, about the way the government is approaching Brexit, and maybe the role of Parliament in any of this?

FO’G: Well, I read in The Telegraph that it’s all the officials’ fault. I always think that tells you a lot about the calibre of a leader, if they end up trying to blame the poor bloody troops.

Well, some of that strange, ultra-reckless stuff is still there, isn’t it. You know, this arbitrary deadline [for the disapplication of EU law] that anybody with half a brain could see was mad. So, they’ve obviously surrendered, or rowed back, on that, which is good news.

I don’t think that the TUC was just being paranoid. Again, we had very good reasons to believe that the Working Time Directive and Agency Workers Regulations have long been targets in parts of the government.

UKICE: Yet the Blair government wasn’t keen on the Working Time Directive either.

FO’G: Well, that’s another story, isn’t it, the opt-outs that the UK secured under the Blair government. Obviously, I’m no longer at the TUC and I’m very aware of how quickly you become out of touch. I did see the TUC saying, ‘This isn’t a complete climbdown’ [on the Retained EU Law Bill]. The Bill still provides for apparently technical issues about whether or not you have to record hours of work which have enormous implications for how you calculate people’s entitlement to time off, and indeed, holiday pay, and of course, the minimum wage.

Anybody who has ever dealt with any of these issues on the ground knows that this isn’t just a technical tweak. So, it’s great to see the TUC ever alert, and with a healthy degree of cynicism, whenever those promises that rights will be protected are made. But I guess, with a bit of distance, it does look like one almighty climbdown.

UKICE: If there is the potential for a change of government, we have Keir Starmer and Rachel Reeves who now say that their policy is to make Brexit work. Do you have views on what that could or should look like, or do you think, ultimately, the only way forward is to re-join either the European Economic Area, in the Single Market, or just to rejoin the EU?

FO’G: Yes, I think re-joining is a generational issue. I don’t expect to see us re-join, necessarily, in my lifetime.

UKICE: So, is there any substance to making Brexit work?

FO’G: Again, the politics of this is, what’s the real concern of the EU? Well, you’ve got rules that you need to uphold. Again, I identify with this as an ex-TUC General Secretary – you always have to show a bit of flexibility, but if you’re too flexible the whole shebang collapses. If you have a club, then you have to have rules. And I genuinely felt that EU concerns about seeing the social model undercut is one area where, actually, any UK government of any colour could have been much more proactive in providing guarantees reassurance.

I mean, let’s be clear, the EU only ever set minimum standards. It didn’t dictate what your workers’ rights needed to look like as a whole. You can do better than those minimums, but the EU is now racing ahead in a number of areas, like collective bargaining, data rights, new rights for workers in the gig economy and on artificial intelligence – that is a much more live conversation in Europe than it is here.

So, there are a number of areas where we’re going to risk lagging behind, where I do think any government could make it clear that, okay, it’s going to be a British social model, but it is going to be a social model that is at least as good as that in the EU. Take away that fear of being undercut. And never, ever underestimate the importance of relationships. Frankly, some of the behaviours I saw from the British side – banging tables, trying to be macho – is not really going to persuade the people you need to.

UKICE: If the Labour government went to the EU and said, ‘There are some deals we’d like to do, maybe things that David Frost floated, but you wouldn’t agree to, but things that would make it easier for our businesses to access the EU market’, would the European Trade Union movement be supportive of a closer relationship between the UK and the EU? Or would they say, ‘No, actually, they’re at a nice distance’?

FO’G: I think the TUC and ETUC would be as one that workers’ interests needed to be at the heart of whatever amendments were made. It can’t just be of benefit to business. This is where my dad and others were right: it can’t just be a benefit to business. The EU did lose its way in those austerity years, and certainly didn’t revitalise and modernise the social dimension that had become a pale imitation of itself and wasn’t dealing with the problems in the modern labour market.

The ETUC was in the room with the European Commission, but it wasn’t being listened to as carefully as it needed to be. Just occasionally, working people come up with good ideas, and there has been a lot of thinking in the European Trade Union movement, around Marshall Plan-type initiatives, which ought to have been taken more seriously.

I think, maybe the tide is beginning to turn a bit. We’ll see. I mean, Macron – how long will he last?

UKICE: Well, he’s got another four years, hasn’t he?

FO’G: Yes, I guess he could do quite a lot in those four years. Anyway, we’ll see. I think I’m still conscious that, when you look around the world, Europe has the only social model. It still matters. It’s far from perfect, but it still matters.

UKICE: Just on a final point, there was a story in the Financial Times about HGV drivers saying that one of the consequences of staff shortages was that they were now training lots of British people who had had lower paid jobs: for example, someone who had been a window cleaner, who was training and going to get a better job.

That sector was looking again at terms and conditions, because they could no longer rely on that supply of cheapish labour from mainland Europe that they’d become dependent on. Do you see any benefits for working people from Brexit?

FO’G: I suppose the argument I had most sympathy with, was that around democracy and accountability. Although, of course, the irony is that we were members of the European Parliament, and as I say, from a trade union perspective, we had guarantees of access and influence, and a role that we certainly haven’t had in the UK, for a long, long while.

But I do feel some empathy with that desire to fashion your own future, and certainly, as I say, when we were dealing with an EU that had forgotten about the social dimension and was pursuing liberalisation and austerity. But in terms of HGV drivers –

UKICE: Just an example of incurring a labour shortage.

FO’G: It’s kind of interesting, because from my Transport and General Workers’ Union days, I remember vividly, the drivers at Shell – they were directly employed. Then, we had a number of disputes, and we had this organised outsourcing and creation of self-employment and owner drivers, and a complete casualisation of that occupation.

Again, when I remember talking to ministers who have always been very, very anxious who were very anxious about the shortages, but who appeared not to realise that the business model had shifted, dramatically, over the last 30 years. It was a bit of a case of you reap what you sow. ‘You haven’t got any levers to pull, mate’, because so many of them are, now, not directly employed.

You’re still worrying about truck drivers going on strike. Actually, what you should be worried about is that it doesn’t matter what you say, in terms of needing more drivers. You can’t make anything happen. The companies can’t make anything happen, because they outsourced drivers, and gave them self-employed status. Similarly, they’d get very excited about the idea of, ‘Well, we can get more women to work, it’s good wages’.

‘Well, in which case, you’re going to need some women’s toilets’: because actually, a lot of the men don’t have decent conditions and facilities on the roadside, but it’s even worse for women. So, I just feel like, sometimes, for me, it will always come back to the fact that, if you treat working people well, the country will do well.


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