Published on April 19th, 2016 | by frances


Strange bedfellows?

By Andrew Macdonald, Prospect BT Nottingham

When we were in Brussels I was fascinated by the subject of lobbyists, which was raised by more than one of the speakers we heard. I could sense their concern. It is a very topical subject and those that are following the Bernie Sanders campaign in American politics will now that there are deep concerns over the Atlantic about the damage lobbyists are doing to their democracy. Remember; we the public have never been allowed a vote on any of the treaty changes in the last 40 years, but lobbyists certainly did have an influence.

The referendum campaign has created strange bedfellows on both sides. On the Remain side, trade unionists find themselves making common cause with corporate multinationals. I wanted to look further into unusual alliances. Is it possible that both sides benefit from EU membership equally?

Several weeks ago thirty six FTSE 100 bosses signed an open letter in support of Britain staying in the EU. Interestingly the figure of 36 out of 100 seems very low considering we are told big business supports remaining in the EU. Together, the businesses represented by those signatories spent 20 million Euros lobbying the EU and received 120 million Euros in grants. That is not a bad return is it? Do you believe that their support for the EU is motivated by any other reason than corporate profit?

Our distance, both physically and culturally, from Brussels begs the question how much influence do we, the people, have? Big business, it seems, has a much closer relationship and vastly more influence. We are told constantly that we benefit from having “a seat at the table” but examples of the benefits are hard to discover. How much influence can you have as one of twenty eight? Imagine if you and 27 of your neighbours had to agree on a common broadband supplier! Ah, but we would all compromise, you say! I would say that you should remember the old saying about compromise, that “A camel is a race horse designed by a committee.”

International bankers Goldman Sachs has contributed a “six figure sum” to the Remain campaign but the exact figure is undisclosed. Their CEO Gary Colm says their support is because they want London to “stay a major financial centre.” Remember when Goldman Sachs threatened to leave the UK if Britain didn’t join the Euro, and at the time forecast the demise of our financial services sector? Just as well that we did not follow their advice at the time isn’t it? Topically, the IMF also strongly advised joining the Euro.

It’s estimated that 30,000 lobbyists are involved with the EU and they are estimated to influence 75% of EU legislation, according to Ian Traynor in the Guardian last May.

I would ask everyone to put 10 minutes aside to read this article, which was a group effort by several respected journalists. It is long but, believe me, you will be shocked.

Among many shocking facts, I was dismayed by the “revolving door of senior commission officials, diplomats and MEPs who retire or quit office and instantly take up office to translate their contacts and inside knowledge into lucrative lobbying work, often by moving to an office across the road.”

Nice work if you can get it.

The good news is that the EU provides the ‘EU transparency register’ for us to research lobbying. As the name implies, it really does shine a bright light on corporate lobbying. I would recommend a look at this public and accessible website and that people do some digging on the 9000 organisations registered. You can see how many people, and what budgets, are assigned to lobbying and also what benefits they may have accrued.

So how has this common cause with the multinationals come into being? Well the single biggest rationale for remaining that I hear from the side of unions is that membership of the EU “protects a raft of worker’s rights.”

Well I want to challenge this. I would ask you, do we really believe that the British public are going to vote in any party that proposes revoking any of the major working rights legislation from the last 40 years? Are the British people really going to vote for a party that says it will have the Equal Pay Act rescinded? Or a party that wishes to reduce health and safety legislation? Or reintroduce discriminatory laws and reduce equal treatment? Or reduce paid holidays? Are those vote winners?

Do you really believe the British people would vote for any of this? I don’t, I don’t believe any party will ever propose it and, if they did, I have a huge amount of faith that we, the British people, would completely reject it.

I believe the “EU protects” argument is a red herring and that the price of believing it is getting into bed with the multinationals. In doing so, the danger is that we support the objectives of the global richest 1% and not those of our members.

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6 Responses to Strange bedfellows?

  1. richard cooper says:

    No wonder people are confused. What with the media spin combined with political white lies, how on earth are the British public meant to cast an informed vote?

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  3. frances says:

    From Calvin Allen, Prospect Research Officer:

    Andrew’s absolutely right here: the revolving door between politicians and well-paid directorships at consultancy firms and lobbyists is a reason for cynicism about our political life in general (and why don’t our politicians get that?).

    But clearly it’s the same in the UK, as we’ve seen, and I don’t think that this is a reason to be expressly critical of the EU in the abstract: it is, ultimately, a massive government organisation whose decisions and laws affect the lives (and health) of 500 million citizens, so it will be the focus of immense lobbying. Part of me thinks that’s just the natural order of things. That’s evidently a reason for concern, and there is a need for transparency about meetings and lobbies between MEPs and such organisations. The European Parliament does have a transparency register, but it’s also a question of a need to strike some form of balance. In my view, we also have to be really careful about who we elect to the European Parliament in the first place. All MEPs should play an active and full role in Parliament and in the life of its committees and plenaries (it should be in the job description) and they should actually turn up to sessions and votes. In short, we should be more careful to elect only those who really want to be there in the first place, to achieve change, who are capable of making decisoins in the interests of all their constituents when confronted with lobbyists, not those whose desires are only to mock (while being happy to take the money).
    On workplace rights, I’m not sure I can be as sanguine as you that these won’t just disappear, as my other post looking at workers’ voice also made clear. We had no generally applicable working time laws until the EU directive and millions of people (as in the US) simply didn’t get paid leave in the UK. It’s not a great step to imagine that we could quite easily go back to those days. Collective labour rights have been (and are still being) massively attacked over the last thirty years and, while individual labour rights have tended to be be supported and even extended, I don’t think it requires a great leap of faith to imagine these also being attacked, not in one trapdoor movement but bit-by-bit (and not least once collective rights have been reduced to the point of rendering collective forms of protest virtually useless – because that is where we are heading).

    I think the EU has provided a vital piece of support for this process.

    And, furthermore, I would be certain that the working time directive would be just about the first thing to go in any post-EU UK – and also that it wouldn’t be the last set of individual labour rights to be removed. The lesson that the Conservative Party learned from the legislation of the 1970s is that, if you give people something to rally around, as the TUC did in 1971 to the Industrial Relations Act, opposition can easily be mounted; if you do it gradually, over time, they don’t. The Tories eschewed their former big bang approach to collective labour legislation at the start of the 1980s – and look where we now are.

    You only have to look at the voices of some of those supporting UK withdrawal to know what they’d love to do to workers’ rights, in the name of reducing bureaucracy and red tape, and to encourage enterprise by helping labour markets work better, of course.

    I’d love to think that people would come out on the streets in support of any attack on maternity provision, for example – and probably they would. My fear, however, is either that they won’t, or that a government which felt it didn’t need to take notice of public protest, would carry on regardless.

  4. Steve Eggar says:

    Unfortunately there is evidence that multi-country approaches to introducing new legislation does not always work that well e.g. the new ISO45001 suffering a setback recently:-

    Participating members – the national standards bodies elected to work on the development of the draft international standard (DIS) – were balloted between 12 February and 12 May on whether to approve it.

    Seventy-one per cent voted in favour, with 28% against (1% abstained). For the DIS to have passed, two-thirds of members had to be in favour and less than a quarter against, taking into account abstentions.

    Full article:-

    Admittedly this was the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) committee which has members outside of the EU.

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  6. Alan Grey says:

    I take issue with a lot of what the ‘Strange Bedfellows’ article postulates but would like to focus on one particular paragraph, the one about influence. I am amazed at how often the argument about “how much influence do we, the people, have?” is used and used quite successfully to convince people who actually do not want or very rarely use that influence. The frequently low turn-outs in European, local and UK elections and the abysmal turnouts in mayoral and PCC elections reflect that apathetic approach and the mindset that the people want someone to do it for them and not to be bothered. The lengths that are being taken to simply get people to register and then to vote is as clear an example of that as you could get. I actually see it as a non-argument. I am content to elect the UK government, for them to appoint Commissioners to present legislation and for the MEPs we elect to approve that legislation. I actually see that as democracy in action which is something that we, in the trade union movement are committed to and continually practice.
    On the issue of how much influence you can have as one of 28 countries represented in the parliament, again, as a trade unionist I see this as a non-argument. It ignores the proportionality of representation linked to the size of the population and the fact that not all MEPs from each country will vote in the same way. As with the UK parliament, there are varying degrees of political persuasion from left to right and alliances are formed around those. Finally, there is the iterative process within and across the parliamentary bodies which ensures that emerging legislation satisfies the majority of MEPs before being presented for endorsement. This is as close to consensus politics as you can get and it is consensus politics which I engage in every day as a Prospect Representative whether this is in single table bargaining with 4 or 5 other TUs or as a Prospect delegate to the TUC.

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