Starmer’s anti-strike stance will not carry Labour to government

By not supporting strikes, Starmer’s Labour has driven a knife into the backs of the people upon whom the party is built.

Railway workers rally on the first day of national rail strikes in Dover, UK
Railway workers rally on the first day of rail strikes across the UK in Dover, Kent, United Kingdom on June 21, 2022. Workers for GTR, which owns Southern, Thameslink and Gatwick Express, are not striking but are still expecting significant disruption as staff from other operators are striking. [Anadolu Agency/Stuart Brock]

There is a cost of living crisis in the United Kingdom. Soaring inflation is causing real incomes to fall; companies are using inflation as a pretext to price-gouge and reap handsome profits, which in turn contribute to further inflation. It is a vicious cycle.

The opposition Labour Party rightly blames the governing Conservatives, who have been in power for the last 12 years, for this crisis.

In a testy exchange in the House of Commons back in May, Labour leader Keir Starmer held Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s feet to the fire.

“At least he’s honest, that the plan is to do nothing. But doesn’t the Prime Minister realise that working people across the country can’t afford to wait while he vacillates!’ Starmer exclaimed, jabbing an accusatory finger in Johnson’s direction. “It’s time to make his mind up!” he added, to cheers from his MPs.

After several minutes of Johnson’s characteristic blustering, Starmer summed up the mood of the nation: “People across the country need action now.”

Of course, workers around the UK are already taking action.

The Communication Workers Union (CWU) has been balloting its members for industrial action at Royal Mail. Food delivery couriers backed by the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWGB) have gone on the longest strike in UK “gig economy” history. Criminal barristers are striking over the level of legal aid fees. The United Voices of the World (UVW) union is leading strikes of hospitality workers. British Airways check-in staff at Heathrow Airport have voted in favour of industrial action, and the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union has just carried out the largest railway workers’ strike in three decades, to name but a few examples.

The Tory government reacted predictably to the action people have taken.

It refused to use its power to constructively address the grievances of the workers and instead initiated procedures to make the country’s notoriously anti-strike laws even more severe. Meanwhile, right wing press outlets and media personalities used all the resources at their service to try to demonise the striking workers. The overall coverage of the strike actions has been so biased and inept that it bordered on farcical. For example, during a televised interview about the rail strikes, Piers Morgan opted to interrogate RMT General Secretary Mick Lynch about his Facebook profile picture.

The Labour Party’s approach to workers taking action to address the cost of living crisis has been to show some sympathy with the plight of the workers, lay responsibility for the disruption with the government, and – above all – demonstrate that the party is “on the side of the public” and “serious about the business of being in government”.  Labour has attempted to do this by making clear that they do not support the strikes.

Indeed, Starmer forbade his front-bench team from attending railway workers’ picket lines, and when a small number did so anyway were admonished.

When a news presenter asked Labour MP David Lammy, a top member of Starmer’s team, if he supported the Heathrow Airport workers who had just voted to strike, he responded emphatically: “No, I don’t. No, I don’t. It is a no. It’s a categorical no.” He later apologised for his remarks, but still stopped short of endorsing the strike in his apology, making it unclear for what exactly he was apologising.

In taking this approach Starmer’s Labour has driven a knife into the backs of the people upon whom the party is built.

Workers and unions never take strike action lightly, particularly in the UK where repressive laws require unions to undertake extensive bureaucratic procedures, ballot workers by post (online voting is not allowed despite all the right-wing rhetoric about ‘modernisation’), and provide employers with ample advance notice of the strike.

If a union fails to adhere to the letter of the law on strike procedures, employers can – and often successfully do – obtain a court injunction preventing the strike from going ahead. For those strikes that do go ahead, the workers are not paid by the employer. As Dave Ward, the General Secretary of the Communication Workers Union, recently put it: “the objective…is never to have a strike; the objective is to reach a fair settlement for workers.”

An effective trade union seeks to win demands, not just make them. If unions could win demands purely through negotiation, they would opt for it every time. But simply saying “Please, sir, I want some more” is not enough to persuade most employers to grant better pay and conditions. A well-run public campaign and robust strike action are often the most effective means of changing the cost-benefit analysis for the employer; when it is costlier for the employer to maintain the status quo than it is to accede to a union’s demands, the union will win. And a strike is effective because it causes disruption; otherwise, it is merely a group of workers taking unpaid leave.

Starmer, and those around him, undoubtedly know all this. It is utterly disingenuous for them to claim support for workers’ demands whilst disavowing their most effective means of winning. But disingenuity has become an increasingly defining feature of Starmer’s leadership.

 After getting elected leader of the Labour Party on a promise to continue many of his left-wing predecessor Jeremy Corbyn’s progressive policies, Starmer has pushed the party continuously rightward. As Starmer himself recently said: “What we’ve done with the last manifesto is put it to one side. We’re starting from scratch. The slate is wiped clean.”

At first glance, policy on trade unions and employment rights appeared to be one area in which Starmer has not moved much away from what Corbyn’s Labour Party had proposed. In its Green Paper on Employment Rights, Starmer promised to restore sectoral collective bargaining and repeal anti-strike laws, and even claimed that these laws “mean workers are denied their fair share of the wealth they create, whilst a lack of collective representation has led to a race to the bottom that damages the economy and hampers long-term growth”. After the Starmer leadership’s approach to recent strikes, it is hard to take this document seriously.

The sad irony is that Starmer’s approach – based ostensibly on the idea that it is necessary for Labour to distance itself from unions and strikes to win power – is unlikely to succeed.

The Labour leader struggles to articulate firm convictions and stick to them. He appears to be bending backwards to appear supportive of what he perceives to be the average voter’s views. If he has a bold vision of what the UK under a Labour government led by him would look like – and how different it would be to Tory-led Britain – he has not yet shared it with the rest of us.

The essence of his pledge to the electorate appears to be that he is not Boris Johnson, and that he’s a credible alternative mainly because he isn’t Jeremy Corbyn either. Indeed, despite ridiculing Corbyn’s Labour Party for being focused on protest rather than power, Starmer’s electoral strategy relies on winning a protest vote. But people rarely elect empty suits. Even his own shadow cabinet was briefing the press that he is “boring“. If he can’t even excite a group of handpicked loyalists like them, exciting the electorate will be an uphill battle. Add to that the war he declared on the left of his own party, the unions the party was founded to represent, and the workers on the frontlines of the fight against the cost of living crisis, and it’s hard to imagine from where Labour will draw the army of foot soldiers and campaigners required for an effective get-out-the-vote operation.

Starmer was right to say that people “need action now”. And if he is to have any chance of one day forming a government, he should spring to action now. He should stop speaking out of both sides of his mouth, support the action people are taking, and stay true to the people and causes he was elected to represent.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.