Steven Fielding

Keir Starmer’s trade union conundrum

Keir Starmer's trade union conundrum
Keir Starmer (Credit: Getty images)
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Where does the Labour party stand on the rail strikes? It is a question government ministers have spent much of their time demanding an answer to, rather than, as critics might suggest, trying to find a compromise that would avoid further strikes. It is, in any case, a rhetorical question: the Conservative party some time ago began to refer to ‘Labour’s strikes’. Downing Street clearly hopes the sight of a trade union disrupting commuters’ lives will help voters forget all about partygate and bring them flocking back to Boris.

So far as some in the Labour party are concerned, the answer to the Tories’ question is obvious. Wishing victory to the RMT, the former leader of the party in Scotland, and keen Corbynite, Richard Leonard tweeted: ‘It's a basic principle. You don't debate whether you back workers on strike or not’. This quasi-religious position sees unions as sacred objects, ones beyond criticism. It might be shared by those on the Labour left and amongst many ordinary party members, but it is not one that seems prevalent outside it.

Nor is it the view held by Keir Starmer. As his spokesperson put it: ‘Nobody wants to see industrial action that is disruptive.’ Of course, there is little point to such action if it is not disruptive. But, following this intriguing line, members of the Shadow Cabinet have expressed sympathy both for the union’s case and for rail travellers. They have focussed their attention on Transport Secretary Grant Shapps’ refusal to join negotiations despite the government owning Network Rail. To ensure the leadership’s apparently strict neutrality on the strike Starmer even ordered his Front Benchers to avoid appearing on picket lines.

This injunction has given rise to all manner of teeth gnashing and wailing on the Labour left who see it as yet another of Starmer’s betrayals of Labour principles. For was it not this party that emerged from the bowels of the trade union movement? It is also a useful rallying cry for those remaining Corbynites who oppose the direction taken by the party since 2020. So far only five very junior front benchers, four from the far-left Socialist Campaign Group, have broken the order. But discontent with the line extends beyond the usual suspects: Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar, who until now has been scrupulously loyal to Starmer, tweeted his presence on a picket line.

Before talk of a summer of industrial discontent, there was already increasing frustration across the party with Starmer’s lack of a positive impact on voters, with many, especially in former Red Wall seats, seeing him as ‘boring’. The Labour leader’s reluctance to take a definitive position on the rail strike is widely seen as being in the same vein as his more general opaqueness and reluctance to define himself. There is talk of changes to this stance in the autumn that will answer such criticism: we will see!

But, in actuality, when it comes to strikes, Starmer’s position is entirely consistent with that of all post-war Labour leaders, bar one – Jeremy Corbyn. Starmer’s immediate predecessor could not see a picket line without joining it and in 2017 promised the Scottish TUC he would ‘never, ever apologise for the closeness of our relationship with the trade union movement’. But all other Labour leaders have struggled to reconcile the party’s close ties with the unions with its need to appeal to the wider electorate. This meant that, when it came to any industrial dispute, their basic hope was it could be resolved without inconveniencing the public. 

Thus, in opposition, Ramsay MacDonald hoped to avoid the 1926 General Strike and prayed ‘goodwill and common sense’ would prevail once it broke out. Neil Kinnock was unable to give the 1984-5 miners’ strike his unqualified support and was highly critical of Arthur Scargill. And there is not a single Labour government that has not had to face down public sector strikes, in some instances even sending in troops to break them. Indeed, in 1965, Harold Wilson even considered deploying the army to drive milk floats during a delivery drivers’ dispute.

Yet, while some New Labour figures floated the idea of breaking the party’s union links, even Tony Blair realised Labour could not afford to do that. He knew that while union votes were never enough to win a general election by themselves, without union money the party was sunk. And in the dark days of opposition since 2010, Labour’s reliance on union funds has only increased, while the unions themselves remain important players within the party’s internal politics. The trouble now, though, is only 23 per cent of workers belong to a trade union: that’s six million people or no more than 15 per cent of the electorate. So, Labour’s need to avoid being on the wrong side of an industrial dispute is greater than ever.

So, does it matter if Starmer continues to dither over what looks like to be a summer of strikes? The evidence so far is mixed. Three opinion polling companies have produced three different sets of results which suggest the majority of the public either supports the RMT (Survation), opposes the strikes (YouGov) or is almost equally split (Ipsos). One pollster, however, thinks that Starmer’s position, so annoying to some of his own members and widely ridiculed by the commentariat, actually enjoys support amongst voters on the middle ground, exactly the kind he needs to win back to Labour. Perhaps the Labour leader has, despite all the critical chatter, stumbled upon the right course?

Written bySteven Fielding

Steven Fielding is Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham. He co-presents the Zeitgeist Tapes podcast

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