Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Theresa May's Clexit Speech: It's A No From Me

Yesterday morning, after months of platitudes, semantic wordplay and gerrymandering by Theresa May, the Brexiteer Government and the very conflicted Labour official Opposition, we finally got the news that strongly principled Remain voters, such as myself feared. May consulted her Brexit Oracle and decided that the UK can "go hard or go it alone", throwing us out of the Single Market, leaving the Full EU Customs Union in the vain hope of creating "some sort" of new one and risking existing bilateral educational and scientific agreements all in the name of those who propagate populist slogans such as "Take Back Control" of our laws or, if you're more cynical to prevent further immigration. May calls such a plan a "Clean Brexit" or to make it sound hip and funky, Clexit. Ms Hoppitykins, Nigey Fartage and the Brexicult are spinning cartwheels, thinking that Trump's maniacal  machinations abroad which involve vague promises of a "strong" UK-US free trade agreement has helped to stir May's nationalistic emotions leading to the delivery of everything they ever wanted from the EU Referendum result. I personally cannot believe Mrs May has the gall to risk international trade relations, goodwill and the very existence of our United Kingdom all because a bunch of folks were angry about us collaborating with other countries to come up with legislation that benefitted us all, rather than the wealthy few or that we'd rather allow for freedom of movement to keep staff shortages low in key industries than close off our borders to those we don't find "suitable" enough to come to the country (some of them include hard working cleaners, care workers and experienced agricultural labourers by the way).

Anyways, I thought I'd share a few thoughts on May's key points that hit me after listening to her speech below:
  1. Norway currently is a member of the European Economic Area (EEA) which makes it part of the Single Market. I believe that conservative politicians in Norway will be watching the EU-UK negotiations very carefully because they will not be supportive of any bespoke free trade agreement that is reached within the 2 year negotiation period after Article 50 is triggered without options being open to Norway to change their trading relationship with the EU-i.e. they want to be able to decide whether they want to negotiate on the Freedom of Movement principle and/or having the option to leave the Single Market themselves for a free trade agreement. I've had two Conservative Norwegian friends of mine already email me to say a bespoke free trade deal is unfair and they have a point; why should the UK be allowed to leave the Single Market and have a free trade deal but Norway does not have an opportunity to ask for this. What about Switzerland?
  2. May wants to retain some "elements" from the current trading arrangement as part of her new "comprehensive free trade agreement"- e.g. for financial services based in the City of London or for the motor industry. That seems to me to be rather in the "wishful thinking" vein. Firms and banks could decide at any moment over the next 2 years to move their financial headquarters to Paris or Frankfurt and both cities  are vying to increase their financial trading status.  HSBC and UBS will be shifting 1,000 jobs each to those two cities as a direct result of May's speech. Motor companies could decide that it might be more viable to manufacture cars in Sweden or France rather than in the UK or to diversify their operations.  We cannot know how Brexit will influence individual firms' decisions and undoubtedly I think there will be some companies who move to an EU country to retain current benefits that are derived from EU membership. That could cost us more high level jobs in London and Edinburgh over the first few years following Brexit.
  3. We will be leaving the "Full" EU Customs Union but at the same time May wants to retain elements of it (that best benefit the UK) -e.g. she wants to get rid of The Common Commercial Policy and The Common External Tariffs (CET) but hasn't really explained what elements she wants to explicitly keep. Many businesses do not want to end up having to pay tariffs on importing and exporting goods from the EU but if we want to change our own tariffs to be "more competitive", we cannot expect that the EU countries will keep their tariff levels the same just to benefit us. The BBC Reality Check team looked at the current example of Turkey who has partial membership of the EU customs union with regards to its processed agricultural produce and industrial products. They have to impose the CET on those products regardless of which country they sell them to and Turkey has to keep to regulations that have been created by the EU even though they haven't had a hand in creating them- e.g. non EU countries who have free trade agreements with the EU can access Turkish food markets automatically even if they Turkey can't access their markets. Under the Turkish style approach, UK businesses would be subject to future regulations without the Government being able to have a say on how they are devised. Mrs May doesn't want that to happen. It'll be very difficult for the UK to get a bespoke deal when the EU will insist tariffs are imposed on non-EU countries to stop them from accessing the EU through a "back door, tariff free route".
  4. Those who are weary of a complete Clexit happening straight away are going to be pleased to hear that May is in favour of some sort of transitional deal between the UK and the EU. She's not in favour of an "unlimited transitional deal" that could leave the UK in May's own words "in some kind of political purgatory" but wants to phase changes in after a deal has been reached and Article 50 has expired. I feel this is yet more wishful thinking on the part of May but some EU countries may be more sympathetic to a transitional arrangement than others. It depends on the tone of the negotiations and whether at least 20 out of the 27 EU countries can agree with the deal terms that are reached.
  5. The "I'm Alright Jack, Screw The Rest of EU" approach has got to end. It smacks of pompous assness. Peter Bone's "the EU will be mad not to go for a free trade deal due to £60bn trade surplus" is one such example from Brexiteers that is not needed.  I ridicule the idea that "no deal is better than a bad deal" for the UK. The smug attitude won't win sceptical voters like me over. A deal that guarantees statutory rights for EU workers and students is an absolute must. May has not yet guaranteed the rights of EU citizens to remain in the UK and be able to have the same statutory rights as British citizens who study and work. This was the demand I presented to "Undivided" and I feel that May needs to show leadership and a willingness to work with EU countries by clarifying this issue once for all. Yes one or two EU countries at the moment may be unwilling to have a deal (she didn't happen to say which) but that doesn't matter. Be a great, compassionate negotiator and stop using EU workers and students and citizens as pawns in your Brexit game. (See my Undivided blogpost from early January here : http://sassysvensknorsk.blogspot.co.uk/2017/01/undivided-heres-my-brexit-demand.html).Without this, I cannot even begin to support other elements of the deal and I'm sure there will be negotiators in Brussels who will feel the same. Smugness needs to vacate political discourse and a polite, collaborative attitude needs to set in...urgently.
  6. Whilst it is important that existing EU employment legislation is written into UK legislation through the Great Repeal Bill I'm sceptical of May's promise to strengthen such legislation in the future or prevent it being repealed should she win a term as Prime Minister in 2020. I don't know whether the Conservative Brexiteers will back a plan to get more frontline worker representation at board level and if May is so serious about it she doesn't need to wait until Brexit to get the legislation introduced. There is no guarantee after Brexit that current legislation will be protected once the Great Repeal Bill has been passed and that concerns me greatly. I do not want to see a rolling back of employment rights because they are seen as "red tape" by exploitative businesspeople. Labour's therefore right to keep the pressure on the Government to make sure they never get an opportunity to do this.
  7. I'm against May taking us out of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) but with her proposing a Clexit it's unavoidable. A number of important discrimination cases have been won in the ECJ, not least the first trans employments right case which guaranteed basic protection from unfair dismissal for trans employees embarking on Gender Reassignment Surgery. The Tory Government of John Major refused to legislate on the issue so I'm glad the ECJ boldly did so. That will not be an option for us in the future under May's plans.
  8. May wants to maintain science and technology project ties with EU countries but as mentioned above, this may be difficult to do without funding streams being guaranteed to universities and tech and research companies post Brexit. We don't also know whether immigration controls will directly affect the ability of research students and innovators to come and work in the UK. The detail is lacking on this.
  9. May wants to co-operate with EU countries to help tackle international crime and terrorism. Does this mean that we'll be retaining the European Arrest Warrant? How much co-operation will be maintained between intelligence organisations? Will officers need permits to enter the country to track down offenders? Again, we are lacking detail.
  10. May wants to stop giving "huge sums" to the EU but she hasn't really qualified what she means by "appropriate contributions" or has stated what sorts of EU schemes she's willing to participate in financially.  Does May want to stop being part of the EU Social Fund that provides funding to some of the poorest parts of the UK to help stimulate employment growth? Does she want to stop funding the Erasmus Programme that allows UK university students to spend time studying in an EU country? Or does she want to stop contributing to UK Farming subsidies that allow farmers to produce the food and drink we need to survive? Current understanding RE funding is that agricultural subsidies will be guaranteed till 2020 and will guarantee to back EU projects signed before the Autumn Statement (anytime before 23 November 2016). Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond also announced in October that the Treasury would guarantee payments for EU projects that go on for a number of years secured before Brexit after the process has started. Yet these promises were made prior to today's Clexit line from PM May. The Vote Leave campaign lied about the £350 million being available to help the NHS each week. What's to say they will not try and go back on these promises if given the opportunity to do so-e.g. if money was tight and austerity measures needed to be implemented again? What's to say that there would be much money saved by not being part of the EU or whether the money saved will be spent on programmes which help the UK constituencies who could do with investment and infrastructure spending after Brexit such as Boston and Skegness? Maybe I just don't believe what May and the Conservatives have to say? Therefore it's rather an understatement to say that May's been a "bit vague" about protecting EU funding levels given to projects in the UK.
  11. May wishes to retain the Common Travel Area between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. This might be difficult to achieve in the event of leaving the EU customs union, as Sinn Fein have warned of a "hard border" approach in response to the UK Government's actions. That's slightly worrying for anyone who wants to never see a return to sectarian violence in Northern Ireland (which the Good Friday Agreement is designed to prevent from happening). Fresh elections have been called for March 2nd and an increase in Sinn Fein seats in the Stormont Assembly could make it difficult for May in the future.
  12. Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has said that the Clexit decision taken by Theresa May will make the likelihood of a 2nd Scottish Referendum "more likely". No legislation has been submitted for this coming year but may be introduced next year if the Brexit negotiations are not appropriate for Scottish voters who voted to Remain in the UK.
  13. As Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott has highlighted in her New Statesman article "There is no mandate for cutting immigration at the expense of living standards", if leaving the Single Market and Customs Union could lead in any way to a reduction in living standards for all people living in the UK, economic inequality will only get worse. Working class voters will be the ones most hit by a shrinking economy and that is clearly not acceptable to those voters such as myself who want to see asset and wealth inequality reduce over the next decade. Leaving the Single Market is a massive economic gamble and it could lead to tax haven status for multinationals with employment rights cut because they are seen as "red tape". That possibility is unacceptable to a Remain voter such as myself. (See Ms Abbott's article here: http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/staggers/2017/01/there-no-mandate-cutting-immigration-expense-living-standards).  
  14. Parliament will have the final say on the Brexit deal negotiated with the EU (if anything useful can be successfully negotiated within the 2 year period). I'm not happy with Brexit Minister David Davis's comment that we'll leave the EU regardless of whether a deal has been reached or not but that is pretty much the reality of the situation with the Conservatives leading the Brexit process. If MPs vote against the deal reached this could leave us subject to World Trade Organisation rules alone, with tariffs galore. No wonder Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn's worried about the UK becoming a "low regulation, low tax haven" where employment rights have been sacrificed to help open us up to competition in the free market. I'd rather see a General Election take place before the Brexit process has been completed to reduce/end the Conservative majority and force a rethink on the Brexit strategy, with Labour deciding final terms within the deal. One practical thing that we opponents of the Conservatives can do is to get ready to back a local candidate who supports the idea of a 2nd Referendum based on the terms of the Brexit deal after a No vote in Parliament. That might sound daft but as long as the deal is composed within the 2 year Article 50 timeframe there could be wiggleroom to do this. 2 years is a long time in politics.
A few more Brexit concerns from a HR perspective:

We are undoubtedly in for a period of uncertainty in the immediate aftermath of the Brexit deal vote in Parliament when initial implementations of its terms takes place. What we cannot do is think that trade will automatically improve within a few months of Brexit happening. HR professionals are worried about retaining key talent that is needed to drive company productivity. Some SME owners may be worried about potential tariffs that may be imposed on the EU goods they produce or consume and about how much extra travel bureaucracy will be placed on British businesspeople travelling between the UK and EU. Some students will be concerned about the cost of holidays or the ability to study within the EU. It's not all doom and gloom and we should do everything we can to promote UK culture and our entrepreneurial spirit but we have to be realistic about the consequences of a Clexit on our economic and social lives.

May's speech may have been seen by some as having given clarity but there are still grey areas that need to be addressed. Ken Clarke is quite right when he says that the UK could end up being unable to influence key policy and regulation on the setting of tariffs and that we could struggle to recruit some talent from the EU because the UK Government will have abandoned the freedom of movement principle in favour of a strict work permit system that may limit the amount of agricultural workers, nurses, cleaners or care workers that we need to recruit to keep staffing levels at least at an adequate level. We've got a massive task on our hands if we close our borders nearly completely and not allow for seasonal workers and health workers to enter the country to take on those jobs that few British born unemployed youngsters want to do. The Jobcentre and Careers Advisors would have to do one hell of a PR exercise to get young people to consider careers in health and social care or in agriculture! Brexiteers will say "oh but you haven't bothered to train British young people up to do the job" or "wages aren't high enough in those industries". That's the fault of those who are unwilling to see an appropriate rise in wages to reflect the hard nature of the job. If we paid care workers more than the National Living Wage, maybe more young people would see care work as a vocational opportunity. With the Conservatives in power this is unlikely to happen. Brexiteers need to hear the facts on seasonal workers. According to the Financial Times, more than 60,000 seasonal workers are recruited to work on British farms from the EU each year to help bring in the harvest but 96% of those currently employed on farms would fail a UK Visa test. Current polling has shown that the Conservatives' attitude towards immigration has been harming  health recruitment. Internet searches from Poland have fallen 17% since June 2016 according to GK Strategy and 19% of Polish ex-pats are considering leaving the country as a direct result of Brexit. Some cretins on the far right will go- "oh goodbye and good riddance" but such attitude is unhelpful and rude, especially considering Polish migrants have contributed much to the UK economy. A lack of direction on the status of EU people in the UK and vice versa  as I noted above (see point 5) adds to the anxiety.

As Alison Weatherhead has noted in her blog for the CIPD The cost of post-Brexit migration control (http://www2.cipd.co.uk/pm/peoplemanagement/b/weblog/archive/2017/01/17/the-cost-of-post-brexit-migration-control.aspx) there are a number of controls that could be placed on EU workers that could test their right to remain in the UK "such as a minimum residency requirement or an earning stipulation above a minimum threshold". Bearing in mind most agricultural workers, cleaners, waitresses and care workers only earn the NLW, the threshold would need to take into account the seasonality of work as well as the number of hours worked in the week, which already sounds far too harsh to me. It is not the fault of a Lithuanian agricultural worker if they are only offered part time hours at the NLW. It is not the fault of a Swedish care worker if she can only part time because she cannot afford childcare costs. Placing immigration controls based on earning power or potential therefore doesn't sit well with me. Employers may also be required to track and monitor their EU employees by sponsoring them to work in the UK. This is costly (the employer or agency will need to be properly licenced) and extremely time consuming but at least the employer will have a responsibility to look after the welfare of EU migrants and perhaps exploitative practices will reduce dramatically. The uncomfortable truth for those who hate immigration levels have to face is that we as a country cannot restrict immigration levels in our key industries. We may be leaving the EU but that doesn't necessarily mean immigration levels will fall. Watch this space.

A positive resistance approach:

The Brexit speech made an impression on me but for the wrong reasons. Sometimes I wonder whether Mrs May was a secret Brexiteer all along but more likely she did deals with the Brexiteers to get herself approved as Conservative Party leader and become PM without the need for party member approval or a General Election mandate. Never forget that the people of the UK did not vote for Mrs May; we voted based on a manifesto put forward by the Conservatives in 2015 under David Cameron which promised us, rather falsely, that we'd remain in the EU Single Market no matter what was decided unilaterally on the Freedom of Movement principle after the EU Referendum had been held. I voted for David Cameron in 2015 on the proviso that the UK's deficit would be reduced (it has grown), that having an EU Referendum would silence critics and allow us to stay in a reformed EU (we did not) and that there would be a commitment to looking at better funding strategies for the NHS (well we all know NHS services are now not getting the proper funding it needs to keep A&Es open and there's not enough funding going into elderly patient aftercare in homes after discharge due to little extra Social Care funding). All 3 of my reasons for voting Conservative in any election, let alone a General Election have now gone. I've supported a Conservative Councillor in Birchwood, Lincoln (Eddie Strengiel) since 2014 and Roseanne Kirk, a Labour City Councillor and County Councillor since 2014 too but now I will no longer vote for Eddie as a direct result of his party's actions over the past year. I cannot vote for someone who aligns themselves with an unelected party leader who does not have a mandate from the populous at large to decide on our constitutional future. It's very sad for an independent voter to say such a thing but my strength of feeling is such that I would be inauthentic to suggest voting for the Conservatives based on the policy platforms they are now choosing deliberately to stand on. I'm sure there are a quite a few Conservative Remain supporters who regard themselves as compassionate conservatives with a small c who will be considering whether they remain part of the Conservative Party or choose to renounce their membership and join a Pro-EU party such as the Lib Dems. I have no doubt that the Lib Dems will see their voting numbers and percentages increase, even in supposedly staunchly Conservative Leave parts of the country. If you want a softer Brexit or no Brexit, how can you support a party whose aim is now to go Hard and leave the EU altogether? Plus the Lib Dems offer that 2nd EU Referendum of the terms of the deal bonus. Quite appealing really. Plus, with Labour's message on Brexit pretty mixed, it takes a brave person to commit to the party at the next GE but at least they've raised the issue of economic inequality being increased if we do not get a deal from the EU after Article 50 has expired.

I'm never going to be an ardent supporter of Brexit and therefore I have to mitigate its impact on my life. I'll continue supporting Labour's efforts to push Mrs May to guarantee statutory rights for all people from the EU, and to take international students out of the immigration figures so they are not subject to any future controls. I'll be supporting organisations such as Hope Not Hate and fight against negative, damaging anti-immigrant rhetoric whether I hear it out on the street or in a future workplace. HR professionals should definitely work hard to stamp out instances of discrimination in their own companies; I'd suggest running an information session to remind all employees of the importance of following behavioural policies and that any such breach will result in disciplinary action. This should avoid instances of Equality Act claims being brought by an employee who feels that the HR department has not done everything it can to protect them.

I'll also be focussing on changing legislation that is currently up for debate in the UK-e.g. Labour's attempts to make sure that mandatory Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) is introduced for all secondary schools or the Caroline Lucas's calls to save the Green Investment Bank from being part privatised. Just because the Brexit negotiations start at the beginning of April doesn't mean May's off the hook with regards to our NHS, Social Care, Education and Housing Crises.  Just because May's buttering up to idiotic Donnie Drumpf doesn't mean we're going to take his promises for a smooth free trade deal at face value. When Trump does something wrong diplomatically or in terms of human rights, I expect the UK Government or the Opposition to denounce him for it. The UK may be heading for a hostile, Hard Brexit but I'm not going to give up making a difference where I can. That's what proactive progressive activists do. We dust ourselves down, take on board the reality of the situation and then act to mitigate the effects. Brexiteers want us "Remoaners" to sit down and shut up. It's not going to happen.....