Laura Smith speaking at the event in Wigan. Photo: LeFT Laura Smith speaking at the event in Wigan. Photo: LeFT

Our Brexit, or Theirs – the LeFT Campaign’s North West event on Saturday saw a big turnout by trade unionists and socialists from across the region and beyond

As Tony Benn once remarked, there are two types of people in political life, signposts and weathervanes. At Wigan, we began to signpost the way to win back a labour movement willing and able to fight for working-class interests and a voice for those tired of being ignored. 

Keynote speakers Ian Lavery (Labour Party Chair and MP for Wansbeck) and Jon Trickett (Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office and MP for Hemsworth in Yorkshire) crossed the Pennines to join us. But comrades were also present from Liverpool, Crewe, Chesterfield, Manchester, Preston, Blackpool, Bury, Bolton and as far afield as Gloucester and London to debate the aftermath of Labour’s 2019 general election defeat and discuss the demands our labour movement must take up as Britain exits the European Union on 31 January.

LeFT Campaign groups in Greater Manchester, South Yorkshire, and London met in recent weeks taking soundings from labour movement activists. The Wigan event was planned to bring together as many North West left activists as possible and given the short notice can be judged a success. 

We were welcomed to Wigan by Steve Shaw, chair of transport union RMT’s Wigan branch whose banner adorned the stage and who spoke with justifiable pride about his home town and his members’ 40 days plus of strike action in the last two years taken in defence of railworkers’ jobs and to stop introduction of Driver-only trains. 

Steve praised the minority of local Labour Councillors in Wigan who had supported RMT picket lines and lambasted the majority who had not: “If you wonder why some railworkers in the North West didn’t vote Labour at the general election and may have even voted Tory, they will tell you one reason is because those Labour councillors never support us when we are on strike” he said.

Ian Lavery opened the meeting, speaking powerfully about his feelings of dismay at being proved correct that by adopting a de-facto pro-Remain policy to appease Lib-Dem voters in a minority of Remain-voting constituencies mainly in the south of England, Labour had been the architect of its own general election defeat. He recalled being told before the general election that he didn’t understand his own constituents (who voted by 70 percent to Leave the EU in 2016) by Shadow Cabinet members armed with opinion polls funded by pro-Remain campaign groups. 

Paula Barker, MP for Liverpool Wavertree who until the 2019 general election was Unison’s Regional Convenor in the North west spoke on the impact of European Court judgements such as Alemo-Herron that entrench low wages and inequality for outsourced workers. As Paula pointed out, leaving the EU offers fresh relevance to socialist policies of public ownership and investment: “Being outside the EU makes it easier to renationalise our railways, post office, gas, and electricity. The party that argues for these policies now stands a real chance of delivering them.”

Michael Calderbank is a lay member Labour activist and officer from Brent CLP. He works with the Trade Union Coordinating Group and writes for Red Pepper magazine. Michael spoke about how working-class voices had been pushed out to the margins of the debate over leaving the EU. Instead of reflecting the anger that working-class voters felt at deindustrialisation, low wages, casualised jobs, poor housing, and declining public services, many Labour politicians had spent the years since the 2017 general election ‘shaming’ working-class Leave voters. 

Michael reminded us that working-class voters have demonstrated repeatedly they want real change: “Labour must offer real change by using the possibilities offered by Brexit to end free movement of capital and impose exchange controls with systematic nation-wide planning and investment”, he said.

Laura Smith, who lost her seat as Labour MP for Crewe and Nantwich at the 2019 general election, spoke brilliantly and passionately about the folly of Labour’s 2019 EU policy: “Leaving the European Union is a precondition for democratic socialist politics”, she reminded us. 

Laura appealed to the audience to start painting a positive picture of life under a Labour government outside the European Union. As she put it, “Life will be shit for working people under a Tory government whether we are inside the EU, or outside it. We must shift the debate about Labour’s future plans to ignite enthusiasm for socialist policies.”

Laura blew the cobwebs of Remainer pessimism off Labour’s internal EU debate, telling us, “We have to organise so that people value solidarity. We must campaign to repeal the Trade Union Act. We must empower our people by democratising our economy and society.” Commenting wryly on her fellow former Labour MP, Laura said, “Let’s resolve to all be a bit more like Dennis Skinner.” 

Jon Trickett went into some of the detailed exchanges he and Ian Lavery had endured with fellow Shadow Cabinet members who argued against all political logic and evidence that by adopting a pro-Remain policy Labour would win both votes and seats at the general election. The full film of Jon, Ian, and others’ speeches will be available on the Leave – Fight – Transform Facebook page. 

Our second panel of trade union and community campaigners set out ideas for the way forward to rebuild our labour movement from the grassroots.

Kevan Nelson, Unison North west Regional Secretary, reminded us that the recent general election is not a zero-sum game. Irrespective of Labour’s drubbing, the fact that we are leaving the EU on 31 January is a cause for celebration for all democrats. 

Kevan reminded us of Marx’s words in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” 

Bakers’ Union President, Ian Hodson paid tribute to BFAWU members’ 2013 strike in Wigan, where Hovis attempted to impose zero-hours contracts on new staff entrants. To their credit, his members refused to accept the creation of a two-tier workforce in an unionised workplace. The exponential growth of zero-hours and agency employment in Britain is a direct outcome of EU-driven, liberalisation of employment legislation such as the 2008 Temporary Agency Work Directive which normalises agency and casual employment. 

Ian recalled how due to her support for the strike, his union recommended Jeremy Corbyn invite Wigan MP Lisa Nandy to join the Shadow Cabinet after his election as Labour leader in 2015. She was duly appointed, and within months was in cahoots with Lord Mandelson to become, along with Chris Leslie, a principal protagonist of the 2016 ‘Chicken coup’. Lesson learned. 

Steve Hedley, RMT Senior Assistant General Secretary commented on the 2019 Tory manifesto attack on railworkers’ right to take strike action by threatening to impose a minimum service requirement during rail disputes. If rail unions such as RMT are banned from organising lawful and effective industrial action, he predicted railworkers would take matters into their own hands by organising industrial action independently of official trade unions. 

Finally, Karen Buckley, a Manchester activist and member of Counterfire, addressed the need for campaigns in communities abandoned by politicians and subjected to a decade of austerity policies. Our discussions were enriched by dozens of socialist and trade union activists from Wigan and across the North West.