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28 July 2022

Has Keir Starmer let ordinary workers down?

The fallout continues following Sam Tarry’s sacking, as union leaders call Labour “irrelevant” to working people.

By Freddie Hayward

Last night Keir Starmer sacked his shadow transport minister, Sam Tarry, after he attended a RMT picket line and gave an interview calling for workers to get inflation-level pay rises. Starmer’s allies say Tarry wasn’t sacked because he joined a picket, but because he broke collective responsibility by calling for the pay rises when Labour’s official party line is the government and the unions should reach a settlement. 

This has not gone down well with the unions. Sharon Graham, head of Unite, said Labour was becoming “more and more irrelevant to ordinary working people”. The head of the Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association said: “if they think [they] can win the next general election while pushing away seven million trade union members, they are deluded”.

Many on the left of the Labour Party have expressed weary resignation in recent months at Starmer’s abandonment of his leadership promises. Tarry’s sacking has reignited their indignation. But that isn’t as big a problem for the Labour leader as some are suggesting.

The expulsion of Tarry won’t cost Starmer a future general election. The sacking of a junior shadow minister does not register with most people. It will certainly divide the party and distract from the Conservatives harmful leadership contest. But the threat of serious internal party dysfunctionality on a scale seen under Jeremy Corbyn is now less severe (if you put the reported shaky finances to one side). The Forde Report – which was published last week and investigates a leaked dossier on the handling of anti-Semitism complaints in the party – argued that factionalism under Corbyn hampered the party’s ability to fight a general election. The problem, according to the report, was the ideological disconnect between Labour HQ and the leader’s office. That gap has now narrowed.

The real problem for Starmer is more fundamental. This summer was supposed to be the great unveiling of Starmer’s vision. Thus far, it hasn’t had the galvanising effect many in the party hoped for. On Monday, Starmer’s speech on the economy was overshadowed by mixed messaging on renationalisation of the railways. Labour eventually said they would be “pragmatic” on the issue. If they’re unsure about renationalisation of the railways – which 60 per cent of the public support – then they need a policy that polls equally well.  Such a tentative, “pragmatic” approach won’t appease the left nor will it inspire the public.

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Why is that? As I wrote earlier this week, Starmer is the Goldilocks of radicalism. He keeps trying to find just the right amount of radicalism to win an election. Fair enough, you might say. He is, after all, trying to turn Labour’s worst performance since 1935 into a healthy Commons majority. But the problem with that strategy is it breeds a perception of inauthenticity. Each hesitation, each pause and calibration creates the impression that he isn’t being straight. That might have something to do with Starmer’s mediocre approval ratings.

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More strikes are planned for the summer and the cost-of-living crisis will deepen through the autumn. Starmer’s authority was boosted after he avoided a fine over beergate. That could change if he fails to provide radical policies that address the severity of people’s economic hardship.

[See also: Lisa Nandy interview: “I disliked the cults around Blair and Corbyn. One man doesn’t change things”]