Just Trading and labour rights
Barry Gardiner MP outlines to a Unite fringe at TUC Congress 2017 how Labour's trade policy will benefit working people, protect public services and uphold the rule of law.
Thank you so much for organising this important event, and for inviting me to address it this lunchtime. I’m very grateful to Unite for the opportunity to present some of the key aspects of Labour’s international trade policy here today, at a time when trade is rising up the political agenda like never before.
As some of you will know, the Conservative government has at last announced that they are going to publish a White Paper on International Trade this month. It’s certainly taken them long enough: Donald Trump managed to publish his trade policy within seven weeks of coming into office, yet I have had to keep on at Liam Fox for one since November of last year. We were beginning to wonder if the government actually had a trade strategy…
We are also told that the Trade Bill and Customs Bill are due to be presented to parliament at some point this autumn. This means that the phoney war is coming to an end, and we are now entering the serious phase of deciding what type of trade policy we want to see for this country. Which is why today’s fringe is so timely, and why we will be coming back to many of these themes when the Labour Party holds its conference here in Brighton in two weeks’ time.
Labour believes in an open, rules-based international trading system because of the economic benefits and life chances that trade can bring working people. Exports of goods and services account for 30% of the UK’s economic output, and trade unions in this country represent millions of workers in industries that depend on exports for their jobs.
This is why the Labour Party is so insistent that Brexit must not allow us to leave the EU without a proper trade deal in place. We simply cannot abandon those people who depend on trade with the rest of Europe for their jobs and their livelihoods, so we reject Theresa May’s suggestion that ‘no deal’ is an option. ‘No deal’ means that we will be required by WTO rules to raise a full set of trade barriers between the UK and the rest of Europe, with all the chaos and disruption this will cause. Truly a recipe for disaster.
I’ve been asked to give you a sense of some key areas where Labour’s trade policy offers a different vision to the Conservatives’. And there are real differences well beyond our approach to the EU. So here is a whistle-stop tour of some of the most important.
Firstly, we in the Labour Party take jobs and labour rights seriously, and we will not allow them to be undermined by any new trade deals. We have pledged to commission a full and independent assessment of each new trade agreement at the earliest stage in the proceedings so we can get a proper sense of the potential impact on jobs across the various sectors of the economy. As we stated in this year’s general election manifesto, we will also tighten the rules on corporate accountability for labour rights violations in supply chains overseas, and we will prevent decent jobs in this country from being undercut by dumping and other unfair trade practices elsewhere. And in this regard, I want to pay particular tribute to the work that Unite has done in combining so successfully with the steel, ceramics and other industry federations to force this issue of trade remedies up the agenda.
Secondly, Labour takes public services seriously. We will ensure that there can be no possibility of trade agreements undermining our ability to deliver public services in the way we decide is best. When a Labour administration is elected by the British people on a platform of renationalisation of key public services, then it is unacceptable that a trade treaty should prevent us from bringing those services back into public hands. In the same vein, we made a manifesto pledge to rejoin the WTO’s Government Procurement Agreement but to safeguard the capacity for public bodies to make procurement decisions in line with public policy objectives. This is crucial if we are to be able to use the £200 billion spent each year by national and local government to create positive social value for the future.
Thirdly, we take the law seriously. To be precise, we uphold the central principle of ‘equality before the law’ that can be traced back 800 years to the Magna Carta. One of the key reasons that Labour came to reject TTIP, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, and CETA, the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement with Canada, is that both treaties included investor-state dispute settlement (or ISDS), granting multinational corporations their own exclusive judicial system – unavailable to trade unions, governments or anyone else – through which to sue host countries for loss of profits. Labour rejects the concept of ISDS in all its forms. We believe that foreign investors can be fully confident that they will receive the same justice as domestic British businesses and the rest of us, in the same courts.
Fourthly, and by the same token, we take democracy seriously. You will have seen the extraordinary scenes last week as the government tried to defend its power grab in the EU Withdrawal Bill. Well, if you think that’s bad, just wait til we get to the Trade Bill. Under the existing rules, the House of Commons has no power whatsoever to hold government to account for the trade deals it negotiates with foreign countries. Yet these deals are international treaties with binding obligations on future administrations – you can’t repeal them like you can domestic legislation, and they take priority over your national laws. We will be fighting every step of the way to ensure the Trade Bill provides for proper parliamentary scrutiny of trade deals in the future, and I call on everyone here and throughout the trade union movement to join us in that fight.
There’s much more that I’d like to say:
• about our export incentive scheme for small businesses looking to get involved in trading overseas;
• about our support for the environmental goods and services sector that already provides 370,000 jobs in this country and could sustain so many more;
• about our plans to create a network of regional trade and investment champions so that the growth and employment benefits are felt right across the UK;
• about our commitment to the world’s poorest countries so that they can continue to enjoy access to the UK market on the same terms that they have to date.
But let me finish with this thought. With Brexit, the UK is taking back responsibility for its own trade policy for the first time in 40 years. This means we must choose what model of trade and investment we wish to see in the future.
We can follow the Conservative Party’s model that hands even more power to a tiny transnational elite and consigns our small businesses, our public services and our hard-won labour rights to the dustbin of history.
Or we can choose a new model that celebrates the benefits of trade and foreign investment at the same time as it safeguards people’s jobs, society’s needs and the environment’s future sustainability.
Labour offers that new model. And with your help and the support of trade unionists up and down Britain, I look forward to being able to deliver it when we form the next administration in this country.