So how DO you build a “people’s Brexit”? Not by marginalising the already marginalised

Brexit can be reclaimed as an entrance into a new political understanding, process and polity – but only if unions and Labour avoid elite-mediated solutions. An excerpt from For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power, published by OR Books.

Image: Banksy, Dover (2017). WikiMedia/Creative Commons license.

How do you analyse a
moment, which was part of a process that is about everything, but was reduced
to a yes – no decision? The EU referendum vote was both a mass participatory
and mass exclusionary moment. This vote, and Brexit as a whole, can be
described as a polarising conflict of marginalisations. The conflict exposed by
the EU referendum constitutes an important point of entry into addressing the
unmet needs and enabling the de-marginalisation of people who have been living
violent marginalisation for generations. 

Following the vote,
there was a 100% rise in racist incidents. One
in five BAME people in the UK reported being racially abused
. This is in a
context of police impunity for over 1,500 deaths
in custody since 1990 within which BME people are over-represented
, and
with black people in the UK three times more likely to be arrested than their
white counterparts, and 44 times more likely to be detained under the Mental
Health Act. Negotiating Brexit cannot be understood as a technical, economic process
alone but one of navigating and overcoming the lived experiences of oppression
in the UK. 

In my analysis of
Labour’s plans for Brexit, I will look primarily at workplace and immigration
policy. I will argue that the implications of a “managed migration” policy –
including “employer sponsorship, work permits, visa regulations or a tailored
mix of all these which works for the many, not the few” – is contradictory and
will ultimately work for the few and not the many. 

This policy risks
reproducing more complex systems of class subordination and fragmentation.
Multi-tiered workforces and the creation of multiple statuses with
differentiated access to resources and rights put collective bargaining, on a
workplace or social level, at a serious practical and moral disadvantage. 

The consequences of
this architecture of multiple marginalisations exists in a context of
manufactured resource scarcity. The legacy and perpetuation of these
marginalisations in a future climate change context of genuine resource
scarcity deserves urgent attention but is outside the scope of this piece. But
it should be understood that a Conservative-led Brexit will marginalise the
climate crisis – already evident with support for fracking – in the name of a
national interest based on a fossil fuel-dependent vision of energy security,
endorsed by mainstream trade unions in the name of ‘jobs’. Labour’s vision for
Brexit needs to put forward a fundamentally class, community and climate
change-based approach that moves away from airport expansion, fracking and
fossil fuels. 

Brexit as conflict

The media-backed right
wing Brexit camp stoked the marginalisation of a ‘British public’, a singular
identity of British-born and majority white Christian citizens – who had been
marginalised by the unaccountable bureaucrats of the EU, who had undermined a
sovereign population’s ability to make its own decisions. The enemy was
Brussels and immigrants, refugees, sliding to general ‘outsiders’ – Muslim and
black and brown communities – competing for scarce resources – jobs, housing,
health care, and welfare. ‘Taking back control’ would be empowering, the box to
tick to shake the establishment, although in reality the establishment was
holding both boxes. 

Racism, class,
poverty and capitalism were marginalised by this discourse. It was a
nationalistic narrative promoted by corporate and establishment interests
seeking to maintain a system based on a continuing subordination and
marginalisation of working class people wherever they come from. 

The leftist Lexit
camp mobilised through the trope of the organised, diverse British working
class, with shared interests and history, driving towards a planned, socialist
economy. Control ‘over the supply of labour’ was to be a key part of this, and
neoliberal trade deals and directives such as the Posted Workers Directive were
to be scrapped. The PWD allows companies to employ overseas workers at
different rates of pay but not less than the minimum wage in host countries,
enabling them to work where wages are higher, but contributing to a divided,
multiple-tiered workforce undermining the rights of all workers in the
workplace and their capacity to collectively bargain. 

The Lexit
camp characterised the EU as a capitalist club
designed to enforce wage
restraint, undermine trade unions and prevent the British working class from realising
the power to win. Controlling the supply of labour would be necessary to do this. The
working class in this conception were framed as British citizens. The
marginalised left-wing British working class would need to marginalise the
migrant working class in order to achieve its aims. 

The mainstream Remain
camp narrative matched the political representation of the EU by the EU – a
community of nations, co-operation and mutual aid. Advocates by turns invoked
inter-state solidarity and the benefits of freedom of movement for all citizens.
Immigrants were ‘a benefit’ to the economy, mass net contributors,
entrepreneurs. The responsibility of the EU in maintaining a disempowered
working class, whose freedoms amounted to choosing which country to be
exploited in, went unaddressed. 

The existence of
trade deals which sell off public services and assets and the dominant
neoliberal economic framework within which ‘development’ would evolve were also
unmentioned. The complicity of EU states in permitting the blocking, drowning
and incarceration of refugees in camps, rather than allowing them access to the
resources and rights that citizens have, helped marginalise migrant, British
and non-British working class experiences of exploitation and exclusion. 

The left wing Remain camp, which included Greece’s
former Minister of Finance Yanis Varoufakis, comprised those who saw the choice
as a ‘lose-lose’ one. The benefits of being able to move in search of better
conditions and work, gaining protection from some of the rulings which have
enabled equal pay and a limit to working hours, were seen as a restraint on
employer abuses.

This position was a
defensive one, against the prospect of being at the mercy of a more nationalist
British establishment which could take back even more control over working
conditions, borders, trade unions, the public sector and trade. This compromise
marginalised the potential for breaking up a powerful neoliberal institution,
whose existence is actually a driver of the marginalising processes which are
being opposed, leading Lexit critics to label Left Remainers as nonsensical and

These very general descriptions of the
way the Brexit debate was framed will in their brevity sideline other
positions, but they demonstrate some of the conflicts within attitudes towards

Whose Brexit?

Understanding more
about who voted, how and why is critical. Whilst it hasn’t been possible to
quantify the motivations of any group of voters fully, the June 2017 British
Social Attitudes Survey, based on interviewing 3,000 people, found nearly
three-quarters of those who are “worried about immigration” voted Leave
compared with 36% who did not identify this as a concern.

The Leave – Remain
divide has been quantified in race, class, age, education and economic income terms,
yet the statistics do not cover the experience of those who
voted. Leave
voters came from areas with the lowest wages in the country
and where there
was a high proportion of unskilled jobs. Remain areas specialised in jobs with
higher pay. According to analysts EMSI, Leave areas have their highest
specialisations in industrial jobs, ranging from tool-makers to production line
workers; Remain
areas have their highest specialisations in creative and professional roles
with arts, advertising and journalism riding high. These are jobs where workers have a
high degree of control over their own labour and working day. 

Two-thirds of those
describing themselves as Asian voted Remain, as did 73% of black voters, whilst
six in ten of those describing themselves as Christian voted Leave; seven in
ten voting Muslims voted to Remain
. These figures don’t reveal the
conditions working
class people of colour experience
, with Bangladeshi household incomes
£8,900 a year (35%) lower than the white British median and typical black
households £5,600 less (22%). These income gaps widen after housing costs are
accounted for, given that 58% of white British families own their own home,
while only one in four Bangladeshi, black and other white (primarily European)
families do.

LSE research
concluded that a greater pool of migrant labour for employers to exploit does
not drive down wages. Pay
did fall by 0.7% in some areas
, which is not insignificant if you are on a
minimal income. It also did not appear to take into account the impact of reduced
overtime and hours and intensification of the labour process, or the fact that
the floor of wage rights – the minimum wage – is actually a ceiling in many
workplaces. This suggests that while a greater pool of workers for managers to
choose from may not drive down wages, unorganised workers can
be used to keep wages low by
undermining collective bargaining in the absence of unionisation drives.

The current
legislative and contractual framework in which work is organised is more
significant in undermining the rights of migrant workers than their origins or
language barriers. A recent cleaners’ strike (1) saw agency workers sourced
from Norwich and Scotland undermine striking Serco cleaners, showing that
workers need not be sourced from overseas to undermine collective bargaining,
given the flexibility of contracts and relative impunity of employers.

Labour is people

Contrary to the Lexit
and Labour argument that constricting the supply of labour is the answer to a
lack of organisation in the workplace, a massive investment in organising
migrant workers and cracking down on modern slavery from a worker-centred
perspective is required. Trade union rhetoric and intention is not matched by
the funding and focus needed to do this. Funding education, training and
organisers who speak the language of workers from countries of high migration
is key, not just to union renewal, but to social change in the UK. 

An example: the
hospitality industry is the fourth biggest employer in the UK (2). It has one
of the highest proportions of migrant and BME workers (70%) and the lowest
union density in the country – 3.6% (3) and some of the highest incidences
of exploitation and discrimination (4). The biggest trade union in the country
– Unite – of which I am a member and for whom I worked since 2005 for seven
years, has just two full-time organisers in this sector. The London hotel
workers branch runs on a shoestring and uses volunteer translators. The
helpline for Unite members does not offer advice in languages other than
English. We can’t organise complex workplaces on the cheap. The mainstream
trade unions are yet to meet the challenge of organising in the most casualised
sectors, even if the smaller, more agile, non-bureaucratic unions such as
United Voices of the World and the Industrial Workers of Great Britain

The idea of
workplaces with union recognition agreements being the only ones to permit
migrant labour – an idea put
forward by the Unite General Secretary Len McCluskey
and potentially on the
table for Labour – should not be confused with union strength and the closed
shop. The imposition of these conditions by law risks barring workers from
industries and pushing people into undocumented work. To implement union labour
only workplaces would need massive enforcement given that workplaces employing
migrant labour are not only big agricultural, logistics and processing
factories and warehouses, but also small firms, restaurants and hotels. An
extension of the minimum wage inspectorate and the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse
Authority which is currently playing a policing role in enforcing the ‘hostile
environment’ directive would be needed. This approach is not a trade union or
worker-led led one to organisation, but one of state enforcement, which could
actually result in trade unions playing the role of border guard, restricting
access to jobs for fellow workers by visa status and nationality. 

Brexit means new borders

Already human resource
management analysts and corporate lawyers predict a lobbied-for modification
(Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment)) legislation
to allow for ‘harmonisation’ of terms and conditions between workers
transferring from one employer to another. This is expected to follow a wage
suppression trend. Others are arguing that TUPE should not apply to small and medium enterprises.
These can easily be created through the current lax agency laws which allow
companies to fold and resurface with the same staff, offices and directors but
without liabilities for the workers they just decided not to pay, leading to even
fewer rights for agency workers. 

UK case law, such as
the recent victories by Unison on scrapping tribunal fees and the right for
workers in union-recognised workplaces to be consulted over contractual
changes, is not expected to be impacted but caps
in equality case compensation, and changes to sick pay and holiday rights are
being lobbied for

Labour’s proposed
repeal of the dozen or more Conservative legal instruments designed to restrict
and criminalise trade union activity also needs to be accompanied by a trade
union education programme delivered through schools, colleges, Labour and
Momentum media and trade unions to encourage and normalise union organising as
common sense. Sanctions against employers who violate workers’ rights need to
be substantial enough to act as a deterrent to current practices of victimise
first, pay later. Focusing on restricting freedom of movement, rather than
employer impunity, marginalises the responsibility of businesses which treat
all workers as expendable. 

Taking back control

Capital is attempting
to colonise resources for social reproduction by restricting migrants’ access
to services before coming for ‘us’. The
Immigration Act creates conditions for future privatisation of not only our
public services, but public life and rights to a commons

Landlords are
demanding passport checks in order to rent property (5). Property, even
temporary, is defined by the Government as a prerequisite for accessing treaty
rights (right to residency) – for some time, rough-sleeping
EU nationals have been being seized from the streets
by Immigration
Enforcement Teams (with the help of charities), locked in detention centres and
deported. This process was successfully
taken to judicial review
, thanks to activists and pro-bono lawyers with
North East London Migrant Action. The Department for Education’s
gathering of nationality and birthplace data in the school census is to be shared with the
Home Office in order to target families for deportation
, effectively making
the right to free education conditional on status. Access to free health care has been
axed for migrants – with proof of identity increasingly sought by medics. Now
both a private insurance and
payment system has been established which can be extended to citizens
future. Racial profiling is an inherent part of this process leading to an
escalation of racist othering in schools, clinics, by landlords, the mainstream
media and on the streets. 

Papers, visa, union card please

At the last count,
the UK had 34 different types of visa in operation (6). Even if you are an
‘exceptional talent’ in science, humanities, etc., and wish to realise your
potential in the UK, you need exceptionally large sums of cash. The application
will cost you £292, unrefundable if rejected, and a further £293 if

‘Barista Visas’
(based on current two-year Youth Mobility Visas), ‘London Visas’ (for Square
Mile financial sector employees), ‘Brickie Visas’ (a three-year points-based
visa), and seasonal, sectoral, regional (Australia and Canada have them), age
and occupational points-based schemes have all been suggested as methods of
managing migration by the Government’s Migrant Advisory Committee. Access to
any state welfare support will be axed. Replacing migrant workers with machines
has also been suggested as an alternative to plugging the skills gap (7).

New visas, statuses
and forms of sponsorship will create new markets of labour purchase for
employers – possibly jointly brokered by trade unions – and new markets for
visa trading, people trafficking and further exploitation of undocumented
workers. During the passage of the Modern Slavery Act, the Government slashed
the rights of victims to recover unpaid wages to just two years. According
to the Anti-Trafficking and Labour Exploitation Unit
, if the UK leaves the
EU it will be far more difficult to challenge this restriction and if the Human
Rights Act is scrapped, it may be impossible.

Germany, and Denmark
with the agreement of Danish trade unions, have applied differential
status for refugees within the labour market
and lower wages – one
euro per hour in the case of one German work programme
– in workfare-style
bonded apprenticeships, tying workers to employer-registered accommodation and
sponsorship. Devaluing the price of labour undermines the rights of people seeking
refuge and collective strength and bargaining. Labour’s ‘managed migration’
should not follow this divisive route. 

Restricting access to
healthcare, education, welfare, work, equal rights, property and representation
for millions of people living in the UK signals a new round of marginalisation,
and an intensification of the class system, leading to a form of social death
for non-citizens. 

Margins burn…

The devaluation of black lives
in the UK to the point that they are expendable and the continuing denial of
this crisis correspond with an ongoing colonial process by capital of resource
extraction and accumulation which deny life
and designate
entire habitats as sacrifice zones
. These can be regions in the global
south or they can be in the UK, including in the most unequal and expensive
borough in the capital – the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.

What has the Grenfell
catastrophe to do with Brexit? It represents the consequence of multiple
marginalisations – by those with drastically more power and privilege, wealth,
whiteness, qualifications, confidence and freedom of movement, possessed by
council leaders, decision-makers, developers, landlords, employers, media
commentators, the newspaper editors who sanctioned ridicule and smear stories –
marginalising the economic and social factors which led to the catastrophe –
all pushing millions of people to the margins, which in the case of Grenfell
Tower, led to their deaths

The mainstream media as a marginalisation machine

Researching this piece,
I kept noticing how online searches consistently reproduced the voices of those
who were already empowered. The representational universe on Brexit is highly

activists put on a series of events in split Leave and Remain cities under the
banner of ‘Take Back Control’ to
bring together Leave and Remain voters and try to process some of the dynamics
which informed people’s fears and desires. Whilst they tended to attract mostly
politicised left-wing Remain voters, the events, with their conflict-welcoming
opening sessions, were still a model for engaging people from across the vote

Momentum organised
dozens of Bernie
Sanders’ Get Out the Vote campaign-inspired training sessions
in doorstep
election canvassing. These enabled a break with mediated communication into
mass face-to-face outreach. Hundreds queued on Friday evenings in central
London to train and thousands took part in nationwide sessions, basically on
how to speak to each other. This helped transform the election campaign in its
directness, unpredictability and de-centering of already privileged opinions
and voices. 

A similar process
should explore some of the drivers of the Brexit vote – Leave or Remain and the
changes that are trying to emerge through it. Conversations, not mediated by
commentators with massive media platforms, are going to be experienced
face-to-face. A deep democratic understanding of the ways we have come to
marginalise and be marginalised, within our relationships, our workplaces, our
communities and ourselves needs to happen. 

The role of Labour
and Momentum activists and leaders should be to develop the Labour manifesto as
a guide for a participatory Brexit policy, explored through conflict
across the country, fostering well-facilitated meetings
where conflict is not suppressed or ‘resolved’ but processed, and where
marginalising power is named and understood. 

Brexit is a conflict
of marginalisations, deliberately polarised by the yes-no question and the
framing of the idea of ‘taking our country back’ by powerful elites.
Negotiations which “seek to unite the country around a Brexit deal that works
for every community in Britain” need to involve everyone. Despite its current
elite unaccountability, Brexit can be reclaimed at a grassroots level, as an
entrance into a new political understanding, process and polity.


(1) Morning
London strikers unite against trio of bad bosses 

(2) Oxford Economics
for the British Hospitality Association, The Economic Contribution of the UK
Hospitality Industry, September 2015.

(3) Williams,
Steve, Introducing Employment Relations, Third Edition, Oxford
University Press, 2014.

(4) Trades Union
Congress, Still just a bit of banter? August 10th 2016

(5) UK Home Office,
Residential tenancies provisions of the Immigration Act 2014 (Right to Rent).

(6) UK Home Office,
Home Office Immigration and Nationality Charges, April 2017.

(7) UK Home Office,
Migration Advisory Committee, EEA Workers in the UK Labour Market – A briefing
note to accompany the call for evidence, August 4th 2017.


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