Keir Starmer’s handling of the rail strikes has taken a wrong turn. A monumental battle is underway over the incomes of millions of people and living standards are plummeting at rates not seen since records began. Wider and wider layers of the workforce are seeing their wages fall. The Labour Party cannot afford to stand on the sidelines.
The position of Labour’s transport team at the outset of the rail dispute was a creditable one – they focused on the government and urged the Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps, to take responsibility for the dispute, including meeting the RMT union. The party’s line was broadly consistent with the RMT’s request for talks with the government. But then things shifted. First, Starmer said he was “against the strikes”. Then an edict was issued instructing members of the front bench to stay away from picket lines. Several members of Labour’s shadow team ignored that and now face disciplinary action.
Across broad sections of the labour movement there is a mix of dismay and fury. As one experienced political campaigner put it to me, “A stupid internal row means it’s just ‘Labour is fighting again’ and not even ‘Keir takes on the left’.” Polls show confusion about where Labour stands. For many, the party’s handling of the strikes amounts to an unforced error. The Communication Workers Union leader Dave Ward said yesterday that Starmer had made more of the issue than was needed.
Political management is not just ordering people about. Members of the front bench, the Scottish Labour leadership, scores of Labour councillors and prominent elected officials all attended picket lines. Whether or not Starmer withdraws the whip from the MPs – and he should not – the episode has shown there is a malaise.
Some see the picket line ban as a welcome restoration of the pre-Corbyn era, believing that it does no harm to distance the party from the unions. Yet Labour’s time in office shows the opposite. When the last Labour government fought with the trade unions, the unions were often on the side of public opinion – from the outsourcing of public services to the part-privatisation of air traffic control.
More importantly, a public bunfight between the party, the unions, the left, the party’s membership and significant parts of Labour’s electoral base is what the Conservatives want – which is why the threat of disciplinary action against MPs should be withdrawn.
These are new and extreme times for the economy and they demand a new political approach. We are seeing a blatant attempt to extract more from working people by making them work for significantly lower real wages. As Mick Lynch pointed out during his media masterclass, Britain has full employment but falling wages. As the TUC has observed, pay is tumbling – £17 per week lower in real terms than it was in 2008. The rail dispute has exposed the fundamentals of the British economic model, and not just over pay.
Ministers insist that Shapps should not meet Lynch, since that would politicise the dispute, but the impasse is entirely political, originating in Downing Street. And the government is in no sense a neutral player: it intends to defeat the strike. The Deputy Prime Minister, Dominic Raab, has insisted that “we can’t allow, I’m afraid, the unions in this very militant way that they’ve proceeded, to win this argument”. Boris Johnson has told his cabinet that Britain must be prepared to “stay the course”. One senior government source has briefed that “the Prime Minister thinks we must win this”. Thus the defeat of the trade unions is essential to Johnson’s wages policy – explaining the latest package of anti-union measures such as the use of agency workers to break strikes.
Teachers, communication workers, civil servants and others are now considering industrial action. In these extraordinary economic circumstances, every single person who wants to protect household incomes is relying on the government’s pay squeeze to be defeated. Millions of people need a pay rise. That requires the trade union movement to succeed.
Just as the government is not neutral over the strikes, neither should Labour be. Where the Tories want to divide people, Labour has a rare opportunity to forge a new consensus – by giving expression to every single person seeking to protect their living standards, showing empathy and support for those who take the difficult decision to strike, and proposing an economic programme that unites everyone who needs an alternative.