Sam Tarry was sacked as shadow transport minister last week after going down to the RMT picket lines at Euston Station, where he conducted several broadcast interviews, declared his solidarity with workers and called for pay to keep pace with inflation. He presumably knew what he was doing. If you’re going to have a principled red line, you may as well make it count. Whatever gloss the leadership tried to put on it (‘he booked himself onto media programmes without permission and then made up policy on the hoof’), the moment was symbolic: Tarry was sacked for supporting a strike.
At a moment when it should have been able to seize the political initiative, the Labour leadership has talked itself into a strategy of retreat. Boris Johnson has driven a train of sleaze through the Conservatives’ reputation as a stable party of government. After a decade of falling pay, wages are now plummeting in real terms. Energy bills are forecast to hit at least four thousand pounds a year by 2023, while BP and Shell have announced yet another round of record profits. The Bank of England’s interest rate hike, and predictions of a long recession, will mean more hardship for working-class people. Many, unsurprisingly, have had enough.
But rather than seizing on the strikes as a way to talk about the injustices of Tory economics, the Labour front bench has squirmed. In late June, David Lammy told Times Radio this was ‘not a time for posturing’, and gave the BBC a ‘categorical no’ when asked if Labour was supporting British Airways cabin crew. Kerry McCarthy suggested on Sky News this week that showing solidarity at picket lines is ‘performative’.
We’ve been here before. During the last big wave of industrial unrest, in 2011, Ed Miliband robotically repeated the line that strikes were ‘wrong at a time when negotiations are ongoing’. When Rachel Reeves says that Labour doesn’t support nationalisation or real-terms increases in public-sector pay, her words echo Ed Balls, who said a decade ago that ‘my starting point is, I am afraid, we are going to have to keep all these cuts.’ Keir Starmer won the Labour leadership promising common ownership, free higher education and ‘no stepping back from our core principles’. Party membership peaked at 570,000 during the 2020 leadership contest. It is now down by more than a quarter.
Starmer also promised to ‘defend free movement as we leave the EU’ but since becoming leader has gone out of his way to accept the Tories’ terms for Brexit, using a keynote speech in early July to rule out membership of the customs union or single market. Even more remarkable is his vocal support for using Brexit to deregulate the City. Starmer’s team are briefing journalists that their aim is to go into the conference season as champions of a programme of real-terms pay cuts and public-sector spending restraint, with ‘no magic money tree economics’.
The Labour leadership and many of its allies in the commentariat have become prisoners of two dogmas. The first is ‘the longest suicide note in history’, which now has two elections to anchor it: 1983 and 2019. It holds that radical economic policy makes the party unelectable and Labour can only return from the wilderness by accepting the Tories’ narrative and offering competent managerial administration.
The second is ‘traditional working-class concerns’, which has sympathisers across the party. It holds that working-class voters outside big cities are innately hostile to immigration and social progress, and that only by ‘listening’ to prejudice (and backing a hard Brexit) can Labour be an authentically working-class party. Both positions require that party members – who are overwhelmingly left-wing and socially progressive – be prevented from driving policy.
Both these dogmas are counterproductive. The current economic crisis presents an opportunity to reassert some basic aspects of social democracy after decades of retreat. A £15 minimum wage has overwhelming public support, as do price controls on food and other necessities. Common ownership of energy commands five-to-one support among the UK population, with other polls suggesting that three-quarters back free energy allowances. Conservative supporters, never mind the rest of the electorate, support rail nationalisation by more than two to one. And yet Labour remains committed to a piecemeal offering, promising to shave money off energy bills by abolishing VAT on them. The leadership’s dogmatic refusal to offer a more radical alternative, and its commitment to the private ownership of basic services, claims to be about winning elections – but it is objectively unpopular.
As well as getting poorer and more unequal, Britain is becoming more isolated and authoritarian. Labour could oppose such policies as sending asylum seekers to Rwanda for ‘processing’, or the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, in clear moral terms. Instead it has stuck to a cautious script, emphasising that it, too, will be tough on borders and disruptive protesters. Keir Starmer used his 2021 conference speech to brand Labour as the ‘party of law and order’.
The stated rationale for this approach is a need to ‘reconnect’ with working-class voters lost in 2019. But working-class voters – in Barnsley and Workington as well as in Islington and Lambeth – are not homogeneous. Labour’s historic claim to be the party of workers is premised on a politics of solidarity and a practice of contesting ideas in workplaces and communities. The current approach of most politicians towards the ‘Red Wall’, on the other hand, is based on a crass identitarian definition of the working class as ageing white men with regional accents.
Relying on focus groups and soundbites communicated from on high excludes working-class people from the actual business of politics, which is left to the professionals. They are turned from complex political agents into passive consumers, as politicians race each other to the bottom on border-building and authoritarianism. To follow through on this strategy, the Labour leadership must shut down party democracy – conference has repeatedly voted for progressive immigration policies – and disregard the views both of its members and of affiliated unions. In doing so, it loses one of the only mechanisms available to it for actually connecting with working-class people.
Starmer promised to continue Jeremy Corbyn’s domestic policy, but has ended up to the right of Ed Miliband. Labour claims to want to win elections, but is addicted to unpopular centrist economic policies. It claims to want to reconnect with working-class voters, but in practice excludes them. Starmer’s approach claims to be about rational, sensible politics, but is in fact governed by ingrained dogmas. Perhaps Labour will win the next general election, but if so it will be in spite of a leadership that promises one thing then does the opposite.