Ever since Keir Starmer was elected Labour leader with a mix of support from the right and soft left, the party’s anti-socialists have been emboldened. Their latest target is the teachers’ unions. In recent days, prominent figures on the Labour right – Andrew Adonis, David Blunkett and Alan Johnson – have attacked the National Education Union and others who are opposing government plans to reopen schools in the midst of a pandemic. This was predictably followed by Tony Blair offering his expert medical opinion that “the risk of transmission is quite low.”
Teachers’ unions disagree, arguing that maintaining social distancing in schools will be exceptionally challenging, and citing evidence that tasks such as marking exercise books could become a new vector for transmission of the disease. Several local councils concur – from Liverpool to East Riding councils have stated that schools in their areas will not reopen until cases of coronavirus have dropped to a sufficiently low level. Meanwhile, in France, where schools have now been reopened, around 70 new cases of coronavirus have already been reported linked to schools.
Why are right-wing Labour figures defying teachers’ unions and councils to support the government on this issue? In many respects, they are following a logic set early in this crisis by Starmer himself when he promised to support rather than criticise the government. Citing evidence that people approve of the government’s handling of the virus, Paul Mason wrote in the New Statesman last month that this was a smart strategy designed to appeal to culturally conservative voters who did not want to see Labour “playing politics” with the virus.
But the government’s approval ratings over its handling of the pandemic have now tumbled – as it was always clear that they would. The myopia and lack of imagination displayed by those who assumed that lining up behind Johnson in a display of ‘grown-up’ opposition would reap rewards is obvious. Government by opinion polls might work during times of stability, but during times of crisis weathervanes fare poorly.
This timid approach also allowed the government to more easily take the front foot in launching its own attack lines, most prominently against teachers’ unions in recent weeks. Emboldened by Labour’s caution and calculation, Boris Johnson banked on a strategy of demonising teachers through the tabloids to force his policies through – counting on muted opposition from Labour to help him out. By and large, he has received that.
This is just one of a number of ways Keir Starmer is pivoting Labour away from the support it has given to trade unions in recent years. Earlier today leading figures in two Labour-affiliated unions – the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) and the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU) – released statements condemning Starmer’s favoured candidate, David Evans, for party General Secretary as “divisive.” The former Blair-era fixer is deeply unpopular with many of Labour’s affiliated unions and seen as likely to diminish their influence.
Keir Starmer may not be leading the charge against the unions, but he is certainly allowing it to happen. And figures on the party right – such as Johnson, Adonis, Blunkett and Blair – clearly see an opportunity. With the departure of Jennie Formby as General Secretary, and the loss of the leadership, the large left-leaning unions are now the last major centres of institutional power for socialism in Britain. The Labour Party’s anti-socialists know that the only way to rid themselves of the left again in this generation is to pick up where Thatcher left off.
With her imposition of rigid anti-trade union legislation and her war on militant unions like the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), Thatcher reduced the UK labour movement to a shadow of its former self. Tony Blair, who refused to use his near-unrivalled majority to rescind Thatcher’s anti-union regulations, was quite happy with this state of affairs. The last soft left leader, Ed Miliband, also made moves against unions in the party. His Collins Review changes were motivated by a desire to reduce their influence in the wake of the Falkirk controversy and appease anti-union tabloids similar to those Starmer is failing to confront today.
There are, of course, legitimate criticisms of trade unions today – but they come from their weakness, not their strength. As membership has decreased, many have become bureaucratised and unresponsive, much like New Labour itself. But whether it’s the NEU representing teachers, the CWU representing posties, or the network of smaller unions representing the country’s precarious workers, unions are the last organic link between the left and the wider working-class. Socialists must stand alongside them and support their fight against a powerful capitalist class.
As is always the case with power struggles within the Labour Party, much will be decided by where the loyalties of the soft left fall. As the Labour right continues with its attempt to weaken the party’s link with the labour movement, the left must remind Starmer and his cabinet that any moderate redistribution of wealth or expansion of the welfare state only stands a chance in the context of a rejuvenated trade union movement.
There is ample evidence to demonstrate that the existence of strong unions reduces wage inequality and the profit share of national income. Mainstream economic theory suggests that workers’ wages should rise with productivity, but the only point in the history of British capitalism where this has consistently held was during the post-war period – a time in which unions were able to fight to ensure workers received their fair share.
But as teachers’ unions defend their members, as well as the health of our communities and the welfare of other workers who are being forced back to the job prematurely, Labour’s leader has failed to come down decisively on their side. There is still time to pressure the leadership into standing behind the labour movement on this crucial issue. The stakes are high: both inside and outside the Labour Party, a defeat for the unions would be ominous.