European Union flag. Photo: Gizmodo European Union flag. Photo: Gizmodo

Alex Gordon, convenor of Lexit – The Left Leave Campaign and former president of the RMT trade union, talks to Counterfire about the upcoming EU referendum

RMT is the one of the few unions to officially adopt a ‘leave’ position. How did this come to be?

RMT adopted a policy to campaign for a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU and to call for a vote to leave the EU in any future referendum at our Annual General Meeting held in Aberdeen in 2010. This position was reiterated in 2015 when it became clear following the Tory victory in the 2015 general election that a referendum would be held before the end of 2017.

The election of Bob Crow as our general secretary galvanised the politics of the union. Bob was viscerally opposed to the EU, which he rightly saw as bosses’ cartel and he viewed the forelock tugging antics of some trade union leaders towards the EU with disdain. His views on Alan Johnson were unprintable.

Two key events really conditioned the political development of the RMT. Firstly the 1987 P&O dispute (when Thatcher’s favourite businessman, Sir Jeffrey Sterling used her newly-introduced anti-union laws to sequestrate the assets of the National Union of Seamen leading to its merger in 1990 with the National Union of Railwaymen to form RMT). The second important event was of course the privatisation of British Rail by John Major’s Tory government from 1993 onwards. It is often not appreciated that the form that rail privatisation took in Britain was determined by a liberalisation model developed by the European Commission. Indeed Major’s preferred option to recreate the regional monopoly railway companies of the inter-war era, was vetoed by the Treasury in favour of the ‘vertical split’ between rail infrastructure and operations dictated by the EU.

What are the main reasons for leaving?

The EU represents an existential threat to public services. Ever since the 1986 Single European Act inaugurated the single market (“the Thatcherisation of Europe” in the words of the then young Tory hooray, John Bercow) the incremental liberalisation of essential public services has spread from transport, to postal services. Now the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) marks the full emergence of a corporate dominance over the public sector including education, housing and health services. If you want to prevent privatisation of schools, council housing and the NHS: vote to leave the EU.

How has the EU affected the rail industry in this country?

Since 1991 a succession of EU rail liberalisation directives have set the framework for Europe’s state-owned railways. In July 1991 the Commission published Directive 91/440 to inaugurate separation between rail infrastructure  (track, power and signalling) from the operation of trains. The enforcement of market relations into publicly owned state railways was swiftly followed by directives requiring the opening up to private competition of rail freight operations in 2003, international passenger trains in 2007 and domestic passenger trains from 2013.

So would it be possible for the railways to be renationalised under a Labour government?

Yes, the policy of rail renationalisation in Britain is simple, achievable and realistic. But only in defiance of EU directives on rail transport. In 2006 the French rail company SNCF was fined  600 million for failing to open its freight sector to private competition. In reality, rail renationalisation is not achievable while Britain remains a member state of the EU.

Those in favour of remaining in the EU say that we need to stay and fight to reform it, do you think this is possible?

The EU cannot be claimed, reclaimed, or reformed for the working class or for the peoples of Europe. None of the advocates of EU reform have produced any coherent description for how EU reform could be accomplished because the EU has no democratic content. The European parliament is an amending chamber, not a Parliament. There is no European people. There are many peoples with distinct and different histories and cultures. The last British politician to be sent to discuss democratising the EU was Gisela Stewart MP, Tony Blair’s envoy to the constitutional convention. That experience made her a convinced Eurosceptic and today she is chair of the Vote Leave Campaign.

The Labour left, and many others who in the past have adopted a leave position, are now for remaining in the EU. What do you think the dangers of this shift are?

Clearly the danger is the political vacuum created by the thousands of disillusioned Labour voters who will not be reconciled to the EU whatever their party’s leaders tell them. The process of social democratic parties losing the confidence and trust of their base by adapting to the demands of the European project can be seen in Austria and France to name just two countries where the far right has supplanted the traditional mass social democratic parties amongst their core traditional supporters.

Some on the left predicted that the referendum would be a ‘carnival of reaction’. What do you think of the campaign so far?

At the official level the campaign has been predictably dire: a competition between Project Fear on the Remain side and the global free trade nirvana of the official Vote Leave Campaign. However, the real campaign in my experience in my workplace and with people I meet has been very exciting. A referendum is not a general election with voters splitting along party lines. A referendum allows real mass political discussions. For one of the first times in my lifetime we are engaging with ordinary people in a wide discussion of fundamental political concepts such as democratic rights and political sovereignty. If the left cannot make headway in this context then it has a real problem.