openDemocracyUK

Tory revolt and the precariat

What is the real motive behind Conservatives' desire to leave the EU? Patriotic pride in Britain? Or the desire to abolish workers' rights?
Stuart Weir
25 October 2011

Conservative ministers and MPs are united on one major and very damaging objective. Behind all the fervour for freeing the United Kingdom from servitude in the EU, the lies and rage about the Brussels bureaucracy, and the nationalist rhetoric about "repatriating powers" lurks an insistent desire to abolish all or much of the social and employment legislation that Europe has given to families and workers in this country.

European Community law has transformed the protection of economic and social rights in the UK, especially in employment.  The first and greatest impact of EU law was in the areas of sex discrimination and equal pay, but it has subsequently pervaded nearly every aspect of employment, and has been particularly crucial in terms of employment rights.  (The EU is the only region in the world in which workers' rights are legally embedded.)  The UK is also obliged by law to comply with a wide range of EU regulations and directives, promoting inter alia socio-economic rights on equality, health, maternity pay and safety at work.
What the Tories want is to reduce such rights to make the labour market "flexible", or in other words, to give employers even more power over their workers.  Where this "flexibility" leads is captured in harrowing detail in Deborah Padfield's post this week on the precariat, to miserable and unstable lives on the margins of society.

What they will say to the public is, "We are patriots. We will free ourselves from interference from Brussels.  We will repatriate powers that belong to us".  Good sturdy stuff, moderated by the intention to remain in the EU and to take advantage of its trading opportunities, enhanced by a less generous labour market.

By all means let Ed Miliband taunt the Conservatives for the divisions and distrust that lies behind Monday's thumping reverse for Cameron and Hague.  But much more important, he must strip away the gallant rhetoric to reveal the harsh reality of the assault on family and working life that they are planning.  He must stick up for economic and social rights with clarity and courage.

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