Brussels or bust: Workers suffer consequences as Brexit draws near
Engine line workers, Paul North, left, and Paul Wiseman walk outside the entrance to the Honda car production plant in Swindon, south England. With Brexit now just weeks away, the company announced plans to close the facility. | Barry Batchelor / PA Wire via AP

Nestled in the southwest English town of Swindon, home of the former Great Western Railway works, is Japanese automaker Honda’s only British car plant.

The 370-acre assembly site, with more than 3,500 union workers, began production in 1989 and has rolled out the iconic Honda Civic, Jazz, Accord, and CR-V models—over three decades more than three million cars have been assembled there.

By 2021, the plant will be a shuttered, empty shell and 7,000 production line and supply chain workers will be jobless.

Honda executives announced Tuesday, Feb. 19 that they will shut down the plant, moving production to Japan, North America, and China.

Katsushi Inoue, the president of Honda Motors Europe, said: “In light of the unprecedented changes that are affecting our industry, it is vital that we accelerate our electrification strategy and restructure our global operations accordingly. As a result, we have had to take this difficult decision to consult our workforce on how we might prepare our manufacturing network for the future. This has not been taken lightly, and we deeply regret how unsettling today’s announcement will be for our people.”

Angela Smith speaks during a press conference to announce the new political caucus, The Independent Group, in London, Monday, Feb. 1. Seven British Members of Parliament say they are quitting the main opposition Labour Party over its approach to issues including Brexit and anti-Semitism. Many Labour MPs are unhappy with the party’s direction under leader Jeremy Corbyn, a veteran socialist who took charge in 2015 with strong grassroots backing. | Kirsty Wigglesworth / AP

While not mentioned in the statement, the timing of the announcement, just 38 days before Brexit, points to the growing economic fears and uncertainties facing companies from other countries as a “no-deal” divorce from the European Union (EU) becomes increasingly likely.

It’s a devastating blow for workers and the town of Swindon, who now join their union sisters and brothers in Sunderland, where Nissan abandoned plans to build the X-Trail SUV in the UK. Workers in many towns and cities across Britain are in a fight to save their jobs while facing the realities and economic reactions that came with Britain’s vote to leave the EU. Swindon, for instance, was one of the first areas to declare a leave result in 2016, with nearly 55 percent of the town voting for Brexit.

Unite union leaders announced Wednesday it would begin a campaign to save the Swindon plant jobs and signaled they had support from the government.

“After yesterday’s devastating news, we pressed hard and really needed to hear that the UK government would be working as tirelessly as we will be to save this plant, its extended supply chain, and the families and communities who rely upon it,” Unite assistant general secretary Steve Turner said.

“We need central government, local and regional authorities, as well as innovative supply chain partners to join us in developing a viable alternative plan that maintains both Honda in Swindon and the UK automotive industry as a jewel in the crown of UK manufacturing.

“Honda, do not turn your back on this plant, its loyal, skilled workforce or the superb integrated supply chain,” he continued.

Formal negotiations with company officials began today.

Order, Disorder

Back at the House of Commons in Westminster, meanwhile, eight Labour Party MPs—Chuka Umunna, Luciana Berger, Mike Gapes, Chris Leslie, Angela Smith, Ann Coffee, Gavin Shuker, and Joan Ryan—resigned from the party in protest of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and his handling of Brexit.

“The Labour Party we joined and campaigned for and believed in is no longer today’s Labour Party,” said Leslie during an impromptu press conference. “We did everything we could to save it, but it has now been hijacked by the machine politics of the hard left.”

This centrist, neoliberal, pro-EU group of former-Labour MPs formed an independent minority caucus, The Independent Group (TIG), and were joined by three Conservative MPs in short order—Anna Soubry, Heidi Allen, and Sarah Wollaston.

The former Conservative lawmakers also criticized Prime Minister Theresa May’s handling of Brexit and questioned her ability to effectively lead the government through such unsteady times.

“The country deserves better,” the three newly independent MPs said. “We believe there is a failure of politics in general, not just in the Conservative Party but in both main parties as they move to the fringes, leaving millions of people with no representation. Our politics needs urgent and radical reform and we are determined to play our part.”

While not an official party yet, the TIG is due to meet next week to discuss who will speak for them during parliamentary sessions.

While the group has not released a manifesto outlining what they stand for, it has a list of 11 “values” it claims the major political parties have forgotten, including: Paid work should be secure and pay should be fair; a responsibility for future generations; a diverse, mixed social market economy.

The bucking of a leftist trend within Labour by moderates, like what we have seen in the U.S. within the Democratic Party and the rise of “democratic socialists,” is not new.

The last Labour split occurred in 1981 and saw the creation of the Social Democratic Party (SDP). The 1981 “splitters” were reacting to Labour’s shift to the left under Michal Foot’s leadership.

Today’s break is an echo from the past, as the TIG also says it will: “reconcile the nation” and “heal divisions between classes.”

More Labour MPs are expected to resign if Corbyn fails to support a second referendum amendment up for a vote next week.

Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May stands, foreground, facing opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, 2nd right, during Prime Minister’s Questions inside the House of Commons, London, Wednesday Feb. 13. | UK Parliament via AP

“I am disappointed that these MPs have felt unable to continue to work together for the Labour policies that inspired millions at the last election and saw us increase our vote by the largest share since 1945,” said Corbyn.

Brussels or Bust

As tension within the halls of Westminster escalated, May is rushed to secure some sort of Brexit solution as negotiations continued in Brussels yesterday.

While no immediate breakthroughs have been reached, both the PM and EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker called the meetings “constructive.”

A joint statement said UK/EU negotiators “will review progress again in the coming days, seized of the tight timescale and the historic significance of setting the EU and the UK on a path to a deep and unique future partnership.”

The Irish backstop remains the outstanding issue, but both May and Juncker have discussed what legal assurances are available apart from reopening the original agreement and are confident a solution can be found.

“I’ve underlined the need for us to see legally binding changes to the backstop that ensure that it cannot be indefinite. That’s what is required … We’ve agreed that work to find a solution will continue at pace,” May said. “Time is of the essence, and it’s in both our interests that when the UK leaves the EU, that it does so in an orderly way. So, we’ve made progress.”

The next House of Commons debate on Brexit is scheduled for Feb. 27.


Al Neal
Al Neal

Award winning journalist Al Neal is PW associate editor for labor and politics. He is also the chief photographer for People's World. He is a member of the Chicago News Guild, Society of Professional Journalists, Professional Photographers of America, National Sports Media Association, and The Ernest Brooks Foundation.