The official opposition is missing in action, so it’s vital that the labour movement asserts itself in the struggles to come
Britain’s decision to leave the EU in 2016 was driven by many factors, but one is often overlooked: the dismantling of trade union power and workers’ rights. When Britain voted in a referendum which, for many, was asking them “Are you happy with the status quo?”, workers had suffered the longest squeeze in wages since the Battle of Waterloo. The halving of trade union membership since 1979 – a collapse particularly marked in the private sector, where membership is now little over 13% – contributed to this protracted stagnation.
Workers, after all, had been stripped of bargaining power when it came to demanding higher wages. Simplistic generalisations often made about the triumph of leave should be avoided – most full-time and part-time workers voted to remain, as did a majority of those whom pollsters classify as working class under the age of 35 – but that real wages had fallen or stagnated for so long fuelled the disillusionment that Brexit fed on. When rightwing Brexiteers argued that migrants were undercutting wages, they were redirecting blame away from the weakening of unions and the so-called “flexible labour market” – but they had a receptive audience. In many ex-industrial areas, the replacement of jobs that had security and prestige with ones lacking both fed that disenchantment: the ingenious slogan “take back control” appealed to many for a reason.