Labour Research October 2018


Casting a vote on the final deal?

Unions are united in condemning the Tory government’s inept handling of the Brexit negotiations. But where do they stand on calls for a “people’s vote” on any final Brexit deal the government manages to negotiate — or, indeed, a no-deal Brexit?

Ahead of this year’s Labour Party conference in late September, where delegates may well be debating and voting on Labour’s Brexit policy (see box), Labour Research has examined Labour-affiliated trade union positions on the call for a people’s vote on any Brexit deal. 

As Brexit day on Friday 29 March 2019 draws closer, and warnings about the devastating impact a Tory Brexit will have on the economy, jobs and workers’ rights grow louder, so too have calls for a public or “people’s vote” on the final Brexit deal from within the labour and trade union movement. 

Labour’s policy on Brexit

Labour’s current policy on Brexit is to respect the 2016 referendum outcome, although it has set out six tests the deal must meet before securing Labour’s backing in Parliament. 

These are to:

• ensure a strong and collaborative future relationship with the European Union;

• deliver the “exact same benefits” as we currently have as members of the Single Market and Customs Union;

• ensure the fair management of migration in the interests of the economy and communities;

• defend rights and protections and prevent a race to the bottom;

• protect national security and our capacity to tackle cross-border crime; and

• deliver for all regions and nations of the UK.

At Labour Party conference, delegates from constituency labour parties (CLPs) and affiliated unions each choose four topics to decide which motions will be debated and voted on. 

Reportedly, several CLPs have voted to submit contemporary motions calling for a people’s vote on the Brexit deal. 

These must meet a set of criteria to qualify as contemporary motions before they can be submitted to conference for debate.

Twelve unions are affiliated to the Labour Party: the UNISON public services, Usdaw retail, CWU communications, FBU firefighters’, MU musicians’, BFAWU foodworkers’, ASLEF and TSSA transport, Unite, GMB and Community general unions, and the National Union of Mineworkers. 

Between them they represent around three million union members and just over half of TUC-affiliated membership. Most of them campaigned to remain in the EU ahead of the 2016 referendum, although the BFAWU and ASLEF, along with the non-Labour affiliated RMT transport union, campaigned in favour of a vote to leave. 


In his speech to the Unite union’s conference in July this year, Unite general secretary Len McCluskey said the negotiations as to how and on what terms we leave the EU had been “entirely overshadowed by negotiations to try to hold the Tory party together”.

The leader of the 1.25 million-strong union, the UK’s largest, said that prime minister Theresa May “is held prisoner by the dogmatists and fantasists of the far right. These people see in Brexit the chance to turn Britain into the low-wage, deregulated, race-to-the-bottom society of their dreams.” 

Unite’s 2018 policy conference passed a Unite executive statement on Brexit in July. This makes clear that the union accepts the result of the 2016 referendum of membership of the EU.

Addressing the conference, McCluskey emphasised that the union is not calling for a second referendum re-running the 2016 vote, “but is saying that voters must be allowed to pass their verdict on whatever agreement the UK government secures within the European Union.

“As democrats we respect the vote to leave. It is, however, impossible to respect the way the government has conducted itself since.”

McCluskey added that the union remains “open to the possibility of a vote on any deal the Tories come back with”. 

TUC Congress composite motion

Unite’s motion to this year’s TUC Congress set out that: “If, despite itself, the government reaches a withdrawal deal that is put to Parliament before March, the prospects that it can meet the tests set by Congress or the Labour Party [see box on page 11] are remote.” 

It continued: “When this happens, our movement must be prepared, politically and industrially, to mobilise against it. Congress believes a defeated deal would be tantamount to a confidence vote in the government, warranting an immediate general election. 

Unite’s motion, together with those from the CWU, TSSA and the midwives’ RCM union, formed a composite motion which stated: “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 Parliament Act”. 

Speakers from UNISON, and the PCS civil service and actors’ Equity unions also backed the motion, which was carried


Shortly before Congress, the GMB general union called for a public vote on the final deal. GMB general secretary Tim Roache said that “how we leave the European Union is as important as the decision to do so in the first place”. He said the union had not come to its decision lightly and had spoken to thousands of its members and asked their views. Members believe that the power should rest in the hands of the people, he added.


The CWU (which formed part of the composite motion adopted), has not called for a people’s vote. 

Its motion to TUC Congress made clear that “we must respect the referendum result and continue to call for a ‘jobs-and-rights-first Brexit’.” 

It called on the union movement “to unify all workers whether they voted leave or remain” and said the best way to achieve this “is to directly link the fight for a new deal for workers in the UK with the TUC’s work on Brexit”. It said any deal must: 

• enshrine and enhance working rights, social and environmental protections; 

• maintain the Good Friday agreement and prevent a hard border in Northern Ireland; 

• secure a customs union with the European Union; and

• protect barrier-free access to the single market. 

It called on the TUC general council to campaign against any deal that does not meet these tests, with the aim of forcing an early election to secure a Labour government with a mandate for a Brexit deal that puts working people first. 


In August 2018, the Community union gave its backing to the People’s Vote campaign after the union’s national executive council agreed the policy. 

This says that the union, which has around 32,000 members, accepts the outcome of the referendum. But it also says: “No one voted to be poorer or to lose their job. No one voted to harm British manufacturing or to make food more expensive.” 

It says these are all more likely as a result of the approach that has been taken by the government. 

Community believes there is now “a very real possibility” that the UK will leave the EU with no deal — or with one that does not allow for the same frictionless trade that the Single Market and Customs Union currently provides — with a potentially catastrophic impact on Community’s members and the industries in which they work. 

“A people’s vote would give us all the chance to decide if the deal is good enough, and if we reject it then all options should be back on the table,” said Community general secretary Roy Rickuss.

Musicians’ Union

On 5 September, the executive of the Musicians’ Union also voted to back the People’s Vote campaign. “The MU has been anti-Brexit since the referendum was announced as we are deeply concerned about how our members’ livelihoods will be affected,” said general secretary Horace Trubridge. 

“We have been working hard to address concerns such as the impact of freedom of movement ending and the likely introduction of a visa system. 

“We are supporting the People’s Vote campaign now, because we think our members and other workers should have their say on the final Brexit deal. 

“Given this started with consulting the population when nobody really understood the likely fall out, it seems perfectly reasonable to expect people to get a say on the terms of it.” 


The TSSA was the first of the Labour-affiliated unions to back the call for a people’s vote. Its annual conference in June this year committed the union to campaign for a new referendum on any Brexit deal agreed by Parliament, and for 16- and 17-year olds to be given a vote in that referendum. 

Shortly after the conference, it launched the People Before Brexit campaign with an event at the TUC’s Congress House headquarters. “Our members believe the British public, now better informed than in 2016, have had a Brexit cooling-off period,” said TSSA general secretary Manuel Cortes. 

“The right thing to do now is to trust the collective wisdom of the many by giving them a say on the final outcome of Brexit negotiations in a referendum. No one wants a continuation of this ruinous Brexit other than the Tory few who are guiding it.”

He told Labour Research: “It is important to make clear that TSSA is calling for people to have a vote — or a referendum — on the final deal, and is not calling for a second referendum on whether we should stay in the EU.”

He said the ballot paper would be a simple Yes/No: Do you agree with the deal the government has negotiated with the EU? “Clearly if people reject the final deal it is up to politicians to decide what to do next,” he said. “They should ensure that the status quo is maintained and we would remain in the EU.” 

The TSSA supports the Left Against Brexit campaign and, during the 2016 EU referendum, campaigned with Another Europe is Possible, the campaign to “stay in Europe to change Europe” that has been organising Left Against Brexit events around the country. 

He also said that for the union, “the starting policy is continuation of freedom of movement regardless of Brexit”. He added that the TSSA, which organises in Ireland, has “a policy of no hard border in Ireland and we are in favour of staying in the customs union. There should be nothing to undermine the Good Friday agreement, and that probably means staying in the Single Market.”


But not all Labour-affiliated unions that have taken a position are calling for a people’s vote or for keeping this option on the table. Speaking at a Trade Unionists against the EU fringe meeting at Congress, ASLEF general secretary Mick Whelan said: “You can’t continually vote until you get the decision you want.”


And the BFAWU remains in favour of Brexit, although president Ian Hodson told Labour Research he has doubts as to whether it will actually happen. “I’m not convinced we’re ready to leave and the goalposts keep moving,” he said. 

“Businesses are not ready and the government is not ready, competent or confident to negotiate a deal to exit or to negotiate good trade deals. A US trade deal that will Americanise the NHS could bring down the government.”

However, Hodson said the union believed the issue is “not the biggest debate at this point of time”. He continued: “Governance of the country is more important — there should be an election and a Labour government in power. “It’s a disaster for working people whether we are in or out of Europe and they are still struggling whether we leave or don’t leave.”

The union campaigned for a left Brexit or “Lexit” as part of Trade Unionists against the EU. But Hodson said the left case for leaving the EU, which includes opposing “fortress Europe” and arguing for freedom of movement for example, is not being heard. 

“It shouldn’t be just about people from Europe coming here,” he said. “There is a wider argument against restrictions on freedom of movement more generally — immigration boosts the economy and improves communities.”

He also stressed that BFAWU policies are formed on the shop floor and based on debates at conference, and that shop floor workers have not changed their position. “They were suffering before, they are suffering now and they expect to suffer after. But at least they will have the opportunity to influence decisions being made in their name,” he said. 

He also dismissed arguments about the threat to workers’ rights if the UK leaves Europe, arguing that in the food industry, agency workers — including those coming from other European Union countries — have seen their terms and conditions worsen as a result of EU legislation like the agency workers’ directive.

“This led to a race to the bottom in the sector,” he said. “Employers brought in contracts which undermined agency workers’ rights and had a massive impact on the shop floor.”

“Trade union rights have also been decimated during the time we have been members of the EU and we’ve seen a decline in trade union membership and collective bargaining. The EU is not a bastion of trade union rights.”

If a debate on this issue goes ahead at Labour Party conference this year, it looks set to be a lively one.

Non-Labour affiliated unions’ positions 

In May 2018, delegates at the annual conference of the non-TUC affiliated RCN nurses’ union backed a motion that the conference ask the RCN Council (its lay governing body) to show its strength by lobbying the government for a referendum on the final Brexit deal. The union had remained neutral in the 2016 referendum. 

In June, professionals’ union Prospect overwhelmingly backed a motion calling for a people’s vote on the final terms of Brexit at its national conference in Birmingham. 

Prospect also remained neutral in the referendum, although the BECTU broadcasting union, which was affiliated to Labour before it merged with Prospect at the beginning of 2017, campaigned to remain in the EU. 

The same month, the midwives’ RCM union voted to back the People’s Vote campaign run by Open Britain, which describes itself as “leading the fight against a hard, destructive Brexit”. 

Also in June, the non-TUC doctors’ BMA union voted at its annual conference to back a people’s vote. The British Medical Journal reported that backing the motion “means a change in BMA policy on the European Union, as it has adopted a neutral stance until now”.

RMT general secretary Mick Cash urged delegates at TUC Congress to vote down the motion for a vote on the Brexit deal because, he said, it “says that we can remain in the single market”. 

He added: “Congress, the single market is the EU. It is the driving force behind the race to the bottom. Of privatisation and of austerity. 

“It’s what the British people have voted to reject in the EU referendum.”

He said a popular vote is “nothing more than a Trojan horse to a second EU referendum”. 

He called instead for a general election and “a national vote that will sweep this rotten Tory government out of power”.