Mick Whelan: ‘We supported Brexit but it’s not turning out as we were promised’

Despite overcrowding and high fares, the EU seems to like the UK model of rail privatisation (Picture Kieran Murray)
Despite overcrowding and high fares, the EU seems to like the UK model of rail privatisation (Picture Kieran Murray)
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Aslef backed Brexit – the campaign to leave the EU – in the referendum in Britain in 2016. Not because we wanted to stand shoulder to shoulder with Nigel Farage – a man we had, and have, nothing in common, politically, industrially, or ideologically, writes Mick Whelan, the union’s general secretary.

Instead, it was because we believe the EU has become a rich man’s club which offers plenty for the boss class – but very little for the ordinary hard-working men and women trying to earn a living in this conservative age of austerity.

I’ll be frank. We didn’t realise that the Tory government was going to make such a horse’s arse of leaving. I was a district organiser for Aslef before I became general secretary, and I know that our divisional organisers and company council reps are much, much better negotiators than the risible lightweights Theresa May has sent to try and do the business in Brussels. And, while I know she was a remain supporter during the referendum campaign, she did famously say “Brexit means Brexit, and we will make a success of it”.

Now there were cynics who suggested that “Brexit means Brexit” was one of the more fabulously fatuous remarks of our times. But many of us took it to mean that there was no going back, and that May would be able to do a deal that was good for Britain. That, after all, was the promise she made.

But it doesn’t look, right now, as if she will be able to do a deal at all. And any deal which she does put before Parliament looks as if it will fall far short of what Boris Johnson, Liam Fox, David Davis and the other Brexiteers promised during the referendum campaign just two years ago.

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At the heart of our objections to the EU were a couple of proposals which we knew would be bad for Britain, in general, and bad for the railways, in particular – the European Commission’s Fourth Railway Package and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the United States.

The Fourth Railway Package is a controversial set of proposals which would foist the British model of rail privatisation on the rest of Europe. We know privatisation does not work. It’s not the right model for Britain and it’s not the right model for Europe. But this package, which despite the reservations of many MEPs, and protests from rail workers across the continent, is the one the neo-liberal ideologues at the heart of the EU are determined to foist on people whether they want it or not. It will turn what we see as a public service into an opportunity for a few firms to plunder a private profit.

Because privatisation has not worked, does not work, and will not work in what is a natural monopoly. The model is broken and is selling Britain – passengers, taxpayers, and those of who work on the railway – woefully short. In the last 20-odd years, since John Major privatised our industry in the 1990s, we have seen our rolling stock get older, our trains get more crowded, and our fares go right through the roof. We now have the highest passenger fares in western Europe. Why? Because of privatisation!

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TTIP was a free trade and investment treaty being negotiated, in secret, between the EU and the US. It was, and is, unnecessary, as the EU and US already enjoy strong trade and investment relationships, with tariffs at minimal levels. So why are some companies so keen to see this new deal signed? Because the aim was to remove barriers which restrict the profits transnational corporations can make.

The problem, of course, is that what global corporations perceive as barriers include vital regulations protecting our labour rights, food safety and banking safeguards. It might be handy for a profit-hungry corporation if it didn’t have to comply with pesky social and environmental regulations but it would not be very good for the rest of us. TTIP appeared to wither away – first there were problems in the European Parliament and then Donald Trump seemed to prefer to pursue his aggressive America First policy – but there are signs that this zombie deal has been resurrected behind the scenes.

Britain’s public health and education sectors have suffered gradual privatisation and TTIP will only accelerate this transformation of our public services into privately run sectors. For those who want to make a private profit at public expense.

As the aim of Brexit is to take back control of our destiny, it would be totally wrong to sell the people out to the EU or the US. We do not want a Brexit deal with the EU which would make it easier for companies to source goods and services from countries, such as the US, where labour standards are lower, or to eradicate workers’ rights, such as collective bargaining and our right to organise, on the grounds that they restrict a company’s business model and its profit margins.

Remaining in the single market would make our decision-making process even less democratic here in Britain as we would still be bound by EU directives without having a voice around the table as they are drawn up. Norway, often touted as a possible template for Brexit, incorporates single market rules as they are made in Brussels and Strasbourg. And we should remember that a recent Norwegian government report concluded that, through its single market membership, it is three-quarters integrated into the EU compared to a typical EU member country.

And state aid is banned as a distortion of competition under Article 107. The EU Commission may grant very limited or temporary exceptions but has indicated that it is highly unlikely that these would not be granted to Britain. As we prepare to leave the European Union on 29 March 2019, we need to ensure that the terms on which we leave – whatever the deal, or no deal, and however it is sold to us by Noel Edmonds, Theresa May, or Boris Johnson – does not leave us in a worse position than we are at the moment – because that wasn’t what we voted for.

Mick Whelan is general secretary of train drivers’ union Aslef and a member of Labour’s national executive committee. This article will be published in the November/December issue of Scottish Left Review