Opinion Articles

The British Trade Union Movement and the European Referendum: What can we learn from the past?

  • RSS Feed Icon

The forthcoming European Referendum will determine how the UK resolves issues of clear importance to British working people, and yet, certainly compared to the business community, the trade union movement has been relatively muted on the issue. This is perhaps surprising, since trade unions have been amongst the staunchest supporters of continued European integration, on the basis that this will ultimately result in a ‘social Europe’ characterised by full employment, participation in decision-making by social partners and generous social policy measures, to protect working people from the consequences of unrestrained free markets.


Forty one years ago, in the previous European referendum, the situation was quite different. Individual trade unions made a significant contribution to the referendum campaign by providing speakers, utilising union journals to explain union policy on the issue, leafletting outside factory gates and the pro-membership prioritised the encouragement of trade unionists to write letters to the local media. Moreover, given the large financial disparity between the pro-membership (BIE) and withdrawal (NRC) campaigns – £1.4 million in private donations to BIE compared to only £8,610.81 for the NRC – trade union financial and ‘in kind’ support, such as the provision of office space and staff by APEX, was essential for the withdrawal campaign to operate effectively.


The overall response from the trade union movement was, however, uneven and less than wholehearted, due to the short term prioritisation given to maintaining the viability of a Labour government with a small parliamentary majority, amidst difficult global economic conditions. Compared to this immediate priority, the question of Europe appeared a lesser consideration. Nevertheless, although sporadic, the trade union movement did play a key part in the 1975 referendum campaign.


So why, in 2016, has the trade union movement appeared to be so reticent to campaign on the issue?


Partly it could be that the dream of a social Europe, upon which so many trade union hopes have been pinned, has proven to be difficult to realise. Indeed, the measures taken in the aftermath of the Euro-crisis have taken the EU in the opposite direction. Austerity, imposed on a number of member nations, by an undemocratically-constituted Troika, is difficult to reconcile with the promises of a ‘social Europe’. Furthermore, the economic framework introduced to support the single currency, is monetarist at its core and it is this that is driving the European project – a development which is hardly compatible with the priorities of the average trade unionist.


In response to this, there are signs that the UK trade union leadership are considering shifting their unqualified support for European membership into something more akin to a bargaining position – i.e. articulating potential sanctions (withdrawal of support) if certain minimum levels of social Europe are not enacted and protected. However, to be viewed as credible, this change of approach needed to be articulated much earlier and given greater emphasis.


A second reason could derive from the fact that the trade union movement is divided on the issue and therefore it is more difficult to campaign around an issue in the absence of consensus. The recent experience of the British Chambers of Commerce has illustrated problems that can arise. However, this is not a sufficient reason for trade unions to remain on the side-lines of the debate. In 1975, the movement was also divided, with the majority (including TGWU, AUEW, TSSA, NUM and ASTMS) campaigning for withdrawal, but with a number of prominent unions (GMWU, USDAW, UPW, NUR and APEX) openly supporting continued membership. This did undermine the effectiveness of presenting a single TUC position, nevertheless individual trade unions were prominent in the referendum campaign in a way that is not (yet) comparable in 2016.


A third option may be that this peripheral position in the debate reflects a broader marginalisation of trade unions in 2016 compared to 1975. Certainly trade union density has fallen considerably during this period, and whereas the labour movement were in the political ascendancy in 1975, with a Labour government, this situation is rather different in 2016 with a majority Conservative administration.


Another possibility could be that trade unions are equally as committed to the issue as in 1975, but that media selectivity has led to conservative, business and UKIP voices dominating the campaign thus far, with statements made by labour movement spokespersons provided with less exposure.


Whatever the reason(s), the fact remains that the British trade union movement has appeared to be a less than enthusiastic participant in the current European referendum campaign, at least to date, despite the fact that the ultimate result will likely impact upon many of the issues close to the heart of trade union members – i.e. jobs, prosperity, wages, pensions, employment protection, migration, health and social policy. In short, the referendum decision will influence how the UK develops over the next decades.


In the absence of greater trade union involvement in the referendum debate, it is likely that the campaign will be fought over a business-conservative agenda, to the neglect of debating the likely impact upon jobs and full employment, how the result might impact upon our public services, pensions, wages and what solution (membership or withdrawal) would be more likely to create the kind of progressive society that working people would support. A review of the lessons to be learnt from the 1975 referendum may demonstrate how the current campaign could provide an opportunity for the trade union movement to engage with working people to outline its own progressive and distinctive point of view.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

Related Policy Papers

Related Opinion Articles



Papers By Author

Papers by Theme


Sign up to receive announcements on events, the latest research and more!

To complete the subscription process, please click the link in the email we just sent you.

We will never send spam and you can unsubscribe any time.

About Us

H&P is based at the Institute of Historical Research, Senate House, University of London.

We are the only project in the UK providing access to an international network of more than 500 historians with a broad range of expertise. H&P offers a range of resources for historians, policy makers and journalists.

Read More