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Brexit: Trade unions vote to keep Final Say referendum 'on the table' despite splits

Divisions between unions exposed as Trades Union Congress settles on compromise calling for option of vote on Brexit deal to be kept open

Benjamin Kentish
Political Correspondent, in Manchester
Monday 10 September 2018 14:45 BST
Unions such as the GMB and TSSA had wanted the Trades Union Congress to formally back calls for a Final Say vote
Unions such as the GMB and TSSA had wanted the Trades Union Congress to formally back calls for a Final Say vote (PA)

Britain’s trade unions have backed the option of a Final Say vote on Brexit, despite a split between major unions.

The 150th Trades Union Congress passed a motion saying the possibility of a referendum on the final Brexit deal should be “kept on the table”.

The unions, which together represent more than 5.5 million workers, said they would “not rule out” throwing their weight behind calls for the public to be given another vote.

However, unions including the GMB, the UK’s third largest, and TSSA, which represents transport workers, had urged the congress to go further and formally back calls for another vote.

They were opposed by the likes of Unite, the biggest union, and postal workers’ representatives CWU, who want the option to be left open but believe the priority should be forcing a general election in a bid to return a Labour government.

Some union backers of Jeremy Corbyn also fear that more vocal backing for a public vote could pile pressure on the Labour leader over his refusal to back a Final Say poll.

Unison, the UK’s second biggest union, is also not convinced that the timing is right to back another referendum.

The divisions became clear as union general secretaries addressed the conference in Manchester to give their views on Brexit.

Len McCluskey, head of Unite, said he understood demands for a Final Say vote but added: “The vote we will need above all is a general election that can deliver a Labour government.”

He said the option of a public vote on Brexit “must be left on the table” but added: “Let’s focus on the prize – sweeping this government away in a general election and giving a Labour government under Jeremy Corbyn the chance to repair two wasted years of Tory wrangling.”

That view was endorsed by CWU general secretary Dave Ward, who told The Independent: “It’s about what really has a big impact on people’s working lives, and that is about what we do here in the UK and getting behind the radical agenda of the Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn. Those two things are more important than campaigning for a People’s Vote.”

Some unions completely opposed calls for another referendum on Brexit.

Mick Cash, head of the RMT transport union, which campaigned to leave the EU, said: “A People’s Vote, or a popular vote, is nothing more than a Trojan horse to a second EU referendum – a second referendum that would lead to social unrest.

“The only vote that matters is a general election. We should be calling for one thing and one thing only: an urgent general election, a socialist Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell.

“We don’t need a People’s Vote, we need a national vote that will sweep this rotten Tory government out of power.”

But Manuel Cortes, TSSA general secretary, said: “These issues around Brexit are too important to be left to politicians.

“It was the people who gave the mandate for us to leave the EU, it must be the people who decide what the terms of that exit actually are.”

The GMB has also called for a Final Say poll. Tim Roache, GMB general secretary, told The Independent: “It’s already crystal clear that what was promised two years ago has been long forgotten by the Tories. They have shut out working people from every stage of the negotiations. We can see the iceberg ahead of us and it is time to take back control from a captain who has lost the confidence of passengers.

“We accepted the result, the people spoke and we’re not going back on that. But increasingly, it seems that the Brexit deal will be dictated by internal Tory party squabbles, not the interests of working people. If the government are so confident they will deliver on their promises, they should have nothing to worry about.”

Frances O'Grady threatens to call for a popular vote: 'I am serving Theresa May notice'

The compromise motion adopted by the TUC recognises “the real risk of a collapse in the talks or a deal that does not deliver on the TUC’s priorities” and calls for “the option of a public vote to be kept on the table”.

It adds: “Congress does not rule out the possibility of a campaign for people to have a final say on the final Brexit deal through a popular vote being held in order to make an informed decision on the deal on offer, break parliamentary deadlock or overcome the Fixed-term Parliaments Act.”

Addressing the conference earlier in the day, TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady insisted “people must have a say” on Brexit and told Theresa May: “If you come back with a deal that doesn’t put workers first, and if you won’t call a general election, then I’m warning you: we’ll throw our full weight behind a campaign and demand that the terms of a deal are put to a popular vote.”

She also called for the power of new technology to be used to give workers a four-day working week.

“In the 19th century, unions campaigned for an eight-hour day,” she said. “In the 20th century, we won the right to a two-day weekend and paid holidays.

“So, for the 21st century, let’s lift our ambition again. I believe that in this century we can win a four-day working week, with decent pay for everyone.

“It’s time to share the wealth from new technology. Not allow those at the top to grab it for themselves.”

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