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Labour Versus the Workers

This summer of strikes amid a Tory-created collapse in living standards should be Labour's moment to make the case for change. Instead, with interventions like David Lammy's, the party is betraying the workers it's meant to represent.

David Lammy delivers his keynote speech in the main hall on day four of the Labour Party conference on 28 September 2021 in Brighton, England. (Dan Kitwood / Getty Images)

It’s very fortunate for Boris Johnson that his adversaries within the Tory Party launched their confidence vote before Thursday’s two by-election defeats in Honiton and Tiverton and in Wakefield. Had they waited, there’s a good chance Johnson would now be on his way out. Tory rules state that an incumbent party leader cannot face a second confidence vote within twelve months of winning the first; though it is possible that the 1922 Committee might change the rules which, given Johnson’s general conduct in office, would be almost poetic.

Johnson is lucky in that there’s no obvious replacement. With living standards taking another huge hit, it’ll take more than slick PR to resurrect chancellor Rishi Sunak’s chances of succeeding him. The alternatives are even worse: among them buffoonish foreign secretary Liz Truss, malevolent home secretary Priti Patel, and unreconstructed neocon Tom Tugendhat. Patel in particular understands the racism and curtain-twitching spite of the Tory base intimately, and the despicable Rwanda refugee scheme is calculated to win it over.

Also blessed by the weakness of his internal opponents is Keir Starmer. Now the Labour left has been frozen out with relative ease, Starmer has more to worry about from the Blairites he’s brought back into the fold. There’s been a low-level whispering campaign against him in the last few weeks, with Wes Streeting’s self-promotional manoeuvrings about as subtle as a brick in the face. Even when there are no differences of ideology or principle at stake, the Labour right can’t help but stab one another in the back; it’s the one thing they still excel at.

With a freshly-minted Labour majority of nearly 5,000 in Wakefield, however, Starmer’s position is safe for now—unless Durham Constabulary intervenes over Beergate, that is. Starmer was quick to claim the Wakefield result as proof that Labour was once more on the path to power and he might be right, even if a majority Labour government still looks very unlikely. The old cliché has it that governments lose elections more than oppositions win them, and the Tories are currently doing their level best to kneecap themselves.

Working-class living standards are collapsing while cabinet ministers—who are themselves loaded—insist the lower orders just have to accept getting poorer (as if real wages haven’t been falling for most of the last fifteen years). Of course, this hasn’t stopped the rich from coining it in: UK billionaires have got nearly ten percent richer over the last year alone. For all the froth about trade union militancy in the press, the surprising thing is that there isn’t more of it, though there are signs that the rail strikes have also raised other workers’ sights.

It’s not as if the supposed opposition has shown any willingness to lead the fightback. Labour frontbenchers have been under orders to stay well away from RMT picket lines, though a handful of them have at least been prepared to defy Starmer and put in an appearance (the bare minimum that should be expected of them). They are now likely to be disciplined for the crime of showing support for workers in struggle. So much for ‘standing shoulder to shoulder with trade unions’, as Starmer’s laughable campaign pledges had it.

Starmer’s Labour hopes this subservient, cap-doffing stance will enable it to capitalise as the Tories implode. It has no intention of offering any meaningful alternative—after all, that would risk antagonising the wrong people—and is instead content to sit on its hands while the Tory Party tears itself to shreds. Cynical as this is, it might get Labour over the line, but it offers little reason to believe that a Starmer-led government would govern substantially differently, even at a time when millions are crying out for fundamental social change.

The by-election win in Wakefield is only likely to make Labour double down on this parsimonious approach. Starmer energetically slapped himself on the back in an article for the Observer, claiming Wakefield (with dreary inevitability) as an endorsement of his ‘unshakeable support for Nato’ and his dropping of ‘unworkable and unaffordable policies’—that is, policies which this brazen confidence trickster purported to support when he needed to swindle Labour members out of their votes in the last leadership election. 

Meanwhile, shadow foreign secretary David Lammy went on TV to brag that frontbench Labour MPs could expect to be disciplined by the party’s chief whip for supporting striking RMT workers, sneering that ‘a serious party of government does not join picket lines’. He was also eager to dismiss British Airways workers at Heathrow—who are set to go on strike this summer after the airline refused to reinstate a ten percent pay cut made during the pandemic—airily stating that ‘we’re all feeling the pinch’. 

Some people, however, are ‘feeling the pinch’ a great deal more than others. In April, Lammy and his fellow MPs received a £2,212 pay rise to take their annual salaries to £84,144, while it was reported only last week that he was under investigation by the parliamentary sleaze watchdog over alleged late declarations of earnings from speeches totalling more than £20,000. No doubt those millions of workers currently wondering how they’ll pay their bills wish they were ‘feeling the pinch’ in the same way as David Lammy.

Enjoyable as it is, then, to see the Tories left nursing a bloody nose, it’s not enough just to want Johnson replaced by a more competent, managerial brand of anti-worker reactionary. Starmer’s Labour has elevated its lack of reforming zeal into a virtue, and the palpable relish with which it now opposes strike action also means it’s highly unlikely it would repeal Britain’s draconian anti-union laws even if given the chance, although a commitment remains on paper.

Nevertheless, there are real opportunities for the labour movement amid the current Tory disarray. There are welcome signs of trade union revival, albeit from a low base; it is vital that this momentum is maintained and built on in the months ahead. What is obvious is that the next Labour government, if there is one, will not be riding to the rescue: instead, the urgent priority has to be strengthening working-class organisation and power so that workers can defend themselves, because Starmer’s Labour won’t be lifting a finger to support them.