While post-Brexit job losses continue to mount in the wake of the accelerating downsizing of the British car industry, the workforce lacks the support of a coherent or cohesive voice speaking up on their behalf.
Motor manufacturing is just one of many industrial sectors where employees are being let down by the failure of the labour and trade union movement to mount a vigorous campaign to safeguard future employment.
Instead of a jointly agreed strategy identifying where jobs are being lost – and then explaining how they might be protected – the largest unions seem to have coalesced around the fallback position of simply rejecting a no deal exit rather than facing head on the impact of Leave or Remain.
Uncertainty about the UK’s future relationship with the European Union is without doubt the greatest current threat to job prospects in the automotive sector and a wide range of other industries.
But Brexit and its consequences appear as almost an afterthought on the front page of the website of the Trades Union Congress and is nowhere near the top of issues highlighted online by Unite, the largest manufacturing union.
Day after day news is emerging of yet another car plant closure or loss of industrial investment.
These stories are being reported in the business pages of even Brexit-supporting newspapers, but a car worker would be hard pressed to find – in the press, online or on radio and television – an informed comment or explanation of the way ahead from either Frances O’Grady, TUC general secretary or the Unite leader, Len McCluskey.
In mid-June, visitors to the TUC’s website were still being directed to the text of a letter dated March 21 in which Ms O’Grady, and the CBI director general, Carolyn Fairbairn, stressed the paramount importance of preventing the UK leaving with no deal.
A link on the frontpage of Unite’s website opened up its mission statement – “A Brexit that works for working people” – dated January 25.
Another page, dated March 30, promoted Unite’s “Save Honda Swindon” campaign in support of the 3,500 workers set to lose their jobs when Honda closes its Swindon plant in 2021.
Within days of Honda’s news, Ford warned of Brexit-related job losses and that was followed through in early June with the announcement of the closure of the Ford Bridgend engine plant with the loss of 1,500 jobs, a decision that McCluskey said amounted to “a grotesque act of economic betrayal”.
“10,000 car jobs are lost so far this year,” was the Daily Mail’s headline (7.6.2019) on its report of a “brutal jobs cull” in the car industry. The previous month, the Daily Telegraph (12.5.2019) had given its assessment: “Britain’s once-great car industry is under threat on multiple fronts.”
What has been so evidently lacking was an attempt by either the TUC or Unite to pull together and assess the implications for motor manufacturing of the plant closure announcements and the way investment in new models is being moved away from the UK.
A run of recent statistics has highlighted the plight of motor manufacturing: car production slumped by 44.5 per cent in April according to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders ( The Guardian, 30.5.2019) and this was followed by news from the Office for National Statistics that vehicle production fell by 24 per cent year-on-year in April (City AM, 11.6.2019).
McCluskey, an astute media operator, is well versed in the art of generating news headlines, as he has demonstrated repeatedly in his role as leading supporter and attack dog for the Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn.
Yet on the day the SMMT announced a 44.5 per cent slump in car production, he used his appearance on the ITV programme, Peston, (29.5.2019) to defend the Labour Party’s expulsion of Alastair Campbell for having voted Liberal Democrat in the European Parliamentary elections.
“Alastair Campbell knew exactly what he was doing...He did it to create a controversy, I am certain of that.”
Almost as an afterthought, Mr McCluskey did say the labour movement should be addressing the “real issues facing working people” but in a wide-ranging interview on Labour’s dramatic slide in support in the Euro elections, he did not mention the plight of Unite members at Nissan, Honda, Ford and other car plants, or say anything further to explain how jobs might be protected.
Honda’s confirmation of the closure of its Swindon plant – “Is Brexit to blame?” (Evening Standard, 17. 2. 2019) – coincided with the decision by seven Labour MPs, including Luciana Berger and Chuka Umunna, to quit the Labour Party.
Rather than concentrate on the Honda calamity, McCluskey again seemed pre-occupied with his role defending Corbyn against the seven deserters, claiming they were guilty of hypocrisy for having gained massive increases in their majorities after standing on a Labour platform in the 2017 general election.
He told the BBC (18.2.2019) that the seven MPs should stand down to see if their constituents re-elected them in by-elections.
As the head of Labour’s largest financial backer, McCluskey cannot be faulted in the consistency of his union’s support for Corbyn, and he has argued consistently that complaints of antisemitism were an “overblown issue cooked up by the right-wing press” and that the party’s deputy leader, Tom Watson, was part of an “anti-Corbyn plot” in campaigning for a second EU Referendum.
Unite with its 1.2 million members is now the second largest union in the country and has the lion’s share of the car industry workforce having absorbed the membership of the former Transport and General Workers Union and the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers.
The very mention of these two former titans of the trade union movement evokes memories of the days when the trials and tribulations of the car industry were reported on at great length by members of the Labour and Industrial Correspondents’ Group.
As a former labour and industrial correspondent for the BBC throughout the Thatcher decade, I like to think that if journalists were reporting employment affairs with our level of dedication, then the British public would know much more about the fate of the car industry.
I am convinced we would have made sure that we had a detailed tally of plant closures, job losses and missed investment. Unite would have had to be far clearer about its approach to Brexit. McCluskey would have been held to account and asked about the lack of a co-ordinated strategy to support car workers.
Similarly, Frances O’Grady would have been firmly challenged on the TUC’s position. Why has the voice of the trade union movement been so muted on the fate of British industry in the three years since the EU Referendum? What has happened to the vigorous pro-EU stance pursued by previous TUC general secretaries?
These doubts prompted questions at the annual meeting of Labour Heritage, when Steve Schifferes, director of financial journalism at City University, gave a lecture on “The Rise and Fall of the Labour Correspondent”.
He did not see any likelihood of these reporters ever becoming as influential as they had been in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, because the trade union movement no longer had the same economic clout or industrial strength.
The trade union movement was split down the middle over Brexit and the unions no longer had the scale of operation to take a position on one side or another in the debate about Britain’s place in Europe.
“Unfortunately, there is not a strong united voice from the unions on what to do about Brexit, so the reality is they are not going to have any influence,” said Schifferes.
Illustrations: Daily Mail (7.6.2019), Daily Telegraph (12.5.2019)