Manuel Cortes: “Why I’m calling for a special Labour conference on Brexit”

Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association General Secretary Manuel Cortes, a prominent supporter of Jeremy Corbyn and opponent of Brexit, spoke to The Clarion.

You’ve called for a special Labour conference to decide the party’s Brexit policy. Why?

I think it’s very clear that if we’re going to push for a referendum, the party needs to make a decision about about what it’s going to argue in that vote. At the same time, Brexit is evolving on a day to day basis – we need an opportunity to take stock about what we’ll argue in a referendum but also how we’ll campaign to get one. Andrew Gwynne has alluded to the members deciding our position in a referendum – and the only way to do that is to call a special conference.

Is it realistic? Well, it’s been done before. In 1975, Labour called a special conference at short notice when the referendum on remaining in the European Community was announced.

And what position would you advocate at the conference?

My position remains that we should remain in the EU and work together with socialists and labour movements across the continent to create a Europe for the many. Jeremy Corbyn campaigned for this in 2016, he was right then and it’s the right position now. Clearly the kind of Europe we want to create is one that favours working people – that puts people first. We need an end to austerity and to a system which does extremely well for the one percent at the expense of the other ninety nine. If we’re going to slay the neoliberal dragon and take on global capitalism we have a much better chance in a union of 28 nations than by ourselves.

The situation in the Labour Party seems complicated and hard to predict. How do you think it will play out?

We’ve got a political and constitutional crisis in our country. We’ve had paralysis for the last 30 months at Westminster, ever since the referendum result. I think Labour has not done that badly in the sense that it’s attempted to heal a very divided country. However, it’s become increasingly clear that the party membership and the great majority of our voters no longer want us to leave the EU. In a democratic party we have to recognise and respect that. The best way to solve this contradiction is a popular vote and for Labour to make a strong case for Jeremy’s vision.

What would you say to those who say a second referendum will disillusion blue-collar working-class voters even more and drive them away from Labour?

I′m not arguing we should remain in Europe with the status quo. Far from it. We need a Labour government committed to the kind of policies we had in the 2017 manifesto. It’s been far too easy for British politicians to blame the problems that afflict so many of our citizens on Europe, when by and large they are the fault of Westminster – the privatisation and deregulation of our economy, the fact that we have the most stringent anti-union laws in Western Europe, the lack of labour rights compared to many European countries, all these problems stem from Westminster not Brussels.

I’m extremely proud that working people in 32 countries have the right to move freely. We want that right to be extended, but to give up the right we have is nonsense. I’m a union leader. I’m not in the business of giving the rights our workers currently enjoy. It’s not migrants who create low wages and insecurity, it’s unscrupulous bosses.

The Labour Party must work with our allies across Europe, in terms of democracy but also an economic program that makes the lives of working people far better. For instance we need to extend collective bargaining and ensure there’s a union in every workplace so that workers can fight for their rights. We need repeal of all the anti-union laws, and their replacement with a charter of positive rights for workers. We need to regulate our economy, ban zero hours contracts and introduce a real living wage of at least £10 an hour. We need to ensure resources are made available to enforce all those things.

Then it won’t matter if you come from Wigan or Brussells, everyone will be treated the same in the workplace.

That argument about free movement, aren’t there a lot of people in the Labour Party, including on the left, reluctant to take that on?

The majority of our members want to say and the majority of our voters want to stay. They know that you can’t stay in the EU without freedom of movement. You don’t have to win that argument with most of our members and voters. There is a minority of people we have to challenge and win over but let’s not inflate their voices.

It often seems there is widespread reluctance to criticise Corbyn. What do you think?

I think one thing Corbyn will respect, because he has been known as a rebel for most of his political life, is this – if you think something is right you should articulate your point and do so forcefully. I’m standing up for what I believe. The people of our country will be far worse off if we leave the EU. The xenophobia that’s been unleashed is a terrible poison and we can’t give victory to the people who unleashed it – Farage, Johnson, Rees-Mogg.

If there is a second referendum, it seems likely the dominant Remain campaign will be a bourgeois lash up similar to the first one but with a slightly more activisty buzz. In that situation, what should the anti-Brexit left do?

Actually I think we’re in a very different place from 2016, because Corbyn has now consolidated his leadership of the Labour Party. The party machine and our half a million members should be mobilised and we should have our own agenda – a firm commitment to remain and to fight to change Europe. We should not get involved in so called cross party alliances. In the last referendum I campaigned with Another Europe is Possible, and I am all for Labour members organising for this perspective, but my view now that Jeremy has consolidated his leadership is that the Labour Party itself should run a high profile campaign.

But what if it doesn’t adopt that position?

My confidence is rooted in the fact that the overwhelming majority of Labour members want this. No party can survive long term without giving its members the ability to influence its policies. More importantly still, perhaps, Jeremy and John have a strong record of seeking to involve ordinary members in decision-making. That’s why I’m calling for a special conference. I think if things are moving towards a public vote a conference will happen and I can only see it taking one position – remain and reform.

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