A Labour government can unite working-class Leavers and Remainers – all of whom are suffering under Tory austerity Britain, says Unite leader LEN McCLUSKEY
while today’s Durham Miners’ Gala is always a highlight of my year, every time I come here my mind goes back to the evil of Margaret Thatcher and how she set out to destroy the miners. That memory isn’t such a highlight.
It’s 35 years since the beginning of the miners’ strike and the start of Thatcher’s programme to close the pits and we see the lasting impact of the biggest act of industrial vandalism ever.
The devastation of our former mining communities is replicated in the deindustrialisation of cities and towns the length and breadth of our country.
In north-east England, more working people are now in low-paid, zero-hours, caring, hospitality and other precarious jobs than elsewhere in the country.
This is a region in desperate need of the hope a left Labour government can offer, and yet there are some within Labour’s ranks who believe that in order to stop Brexit we should write off working-class areas that voted Leave as somehow lost to progressive politics.
People with a proud history of solidarity and pride in their communities and labour movement, but who, apparently, we should abandon because they’re now all bigots and racists. Abandon them just as Thatcher did 40 years ago, and as decades of neoliberal governments have done since, and as our almost certain to be next prime minister, Boris Johnson, will continue to do.
A man who won’t be chosen by the British people but by a reactionary ragtag of Tories, entirely unrepresentative of the country, and who has shown such contempt for working-class people and the poverty forced on them by his party’s vindictive austerity economics that he’s pledged tax cuts for the rich, with the top 10 per cent of earners set to benefit from three-quarters of that cut.
People didn’t vote for Brexit because they’ve become part of a nationalism that makes them lost to Labour forever. They did it because they feel cast aside by Westminster, and the Tories’ disastrous handling of Brexit has only deepened the despair and disillusion among these communities.
Labour, committed as it is to rebuilding our manufacturing base with a coherent industrial and investment strategy, with trade unions as industry partners, must never again walk away from those whose lives and communities have been ravaged by neoliberal dogma.
To dismiss class in favour of a culture war will only separate our party from its social roots and will undoubtedly pit big cities against the rest and lose us constituencies vital for a Labour majority, without securing compensating gains elsewhere.
That’s why I reject this new division of the country into “Remainers” and “Leavers.” There will be both at today’s Gala, but as trade unionists Brexit doesn’t divide us. Our values of fairness, equality, justice and solidarity bind us together.
And Brexit, hugely damaging as it has become, does not change the fact that ultimately it is the free market and right-wing governments that are the real cause of both the long-term decline of our industrial base, our slide into a predominantly service sector economy and the manufacturing emergency we are now in the grip of, including Honda and Ford’s recent decisions to abandon the loyal and highly skilled workforces that have worked tirelessly to build their world-leading plants.
It started while Britain was firmly in the European Union and it will not be solved by leaving or remaining on its own.
Though let me be clear: I’m very comfortable with the Brexit consensus that has been reached after consultation and debate with unions, members and the NEC, that if the next Tory prime minister gets a new deal that does not protect the economy and jobs, or settles on a no deal, Labour will demand a referendum, and campaign for Remain.
And as someone who has consistently said that I want a second referendum in the shape of a general election, I am happy too with our agreement that, in the event of that election, which it looks like we’ll be fighting within months, then we should seek to agree a deal that respects the 2016 vote. That deal should then be put back to the people with Remain as an option.
I believe this position both respects and will satisfy the 48 per cent who voted to remain, and the 52 per cent who voted to leave. No-one is abandoned.
And now we have that agreement, all Labour MPs and our members should concentrate on the reality of what will happen with Johnson as prime minister, a man who is going to disregard half of our nation, while the new Liberal Democrat leader will disregard the other half.
Jeremy Corbyn is the only person who is speaking for the whole nation, and a Corbyn government is the only one able to solve this country’s problems.
When I last spoke at Durham, Corbyn had just come within touching distance of No 10. The result was a vindication for everyone who stood by Jeremy, for the coalition that came together to support him and for our radical manifesto, which gave us a fantastic new vision for our country.
We gave people the chance to believe that another world really is possible, and absolutely nothing has changed.
Thatcher didn’t destroy the spirit of the miners — and the evidence will be in Durham today, in glorious technicolour. Let’s not let anyone try again to destroy the spirit of our movement and our party.
A Johnson government can be derailed and we can secure the prize of a general election. If we stay united and maintain that coalition of 2017, then we will win a Labour government to transform our country and heal its divisions.
Len McCluskey is general secretary of Unite the Union.