Keir Starmer Keir Starmer. Photo: UK Parliament / Jessica Taylor / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

Lindsey German on the Labour leadership getting in the gutter

It’s quite an achievement to alienate such august figures as Labour’s former Home Secretary David (now Lord) Blunkett. He was perhaps one of the most socially conservative of Tony Blair’s cabinet, and became increasingly so as time went on. But he has expressed despair at the Labour Party attack ad which claims that Rishi Sunak does not want to jail those involved in child sex abuse. It’s not hard to see what is going on here, when an Asian man is pictured as being tolerant of such abuse, at a time of heightened racism and when the tropes about Asian men sexually abusing white girls is used to scapegoat refugees and to erroneously claim the main problem is with ‘Pakistani grooming gangs.’

There is no other word than shameful to describe Labour’s decision to go down this road. And it is a deliberate policy. Keir Starmer made it absolutely clear that he supported the ad, even though it’s obvious that some of his shadow cabinet, including his shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper, disagree. Labour has since doubled down on the racist ad, stressing its law-and-order commitment. This is a direct appeal to some of the most racist voters, on the false assumption that this is the way to win back so called ‘red wall’ voters.

The row follows on from Starmer’s refusal to allow Jeremy Corbyn to stand as a Labour candidate in his Islington North constituency. It is consistent with other policies, including refusal to back strikers or endorse Labour MPs going to picket lines, and a determination to do everything possible to appease the City and big business. Junior doctors out on strike for a living wage will get no comfort from Labour, with Starmer saying that a 35% pay increase is much too high, despite the fact that this is to take into account years of falling wages and the present very high inflation.

It’s not entirely surprising to find that after all this Labour, and Starmer in particular, are falling in the polls. The 20 point lead that the party had is shrinking, although it is still well ahead of the Tories, who would lose their majority for certain if there were an election tomorrow. According to those who conduct the polls there are two main reasons for this. One is that Rishi Sunak is not Liz Truss or Boris Johnson, and Tory voters are breathing sighs of relief over this. The other is that there is too little difference between the main parties for voters to distinguish. This is a very bad situation for Starmer, who manages to make Sunak look animated and sympathetic, and who appears to lack any means of appealing to working class voters.   

His problem is compounded by the fact that perhaps 200,000 party members have left since he took over, overwhelmingly from the left of the party, in disgust at Starmer’s abandonment of the platform on which he stood to be elected as leader. Labour’s right, epitomised by Peter Mandelson, is delighted by this, as it weakens the existing left, including the handful of Labour MPs who still stand up for some socialist principles. It also proves to capital and to the British ruling class that Starmer, if elected prime minister, will do absolutely nothing to challenge the distribution of wealth and power in British society.

But there are also difficulties in simply alienating the left, many of whom do a great deal of work in trying to get Labour elected. And it seems to me that a good proportion of those who have left or been driven out by Starmer will not vote Labour at the next election. I think that’s a mistake, as a vote Labour is a sign that more workers are breaking with openly Tory ideology. But it is nonetheless a fact. 

And whereas in the early years of the 20th century Labour built in part by being seen to support trade unions and strikes, this is not the experience of many working-class people today. Labour councils are often in conflict with their own workers over pay and conditions. And the refusal to support the current struggles of teachers, NHS workers and rail workers means that a new generation of workers will not automatically look to Labour as the party for which it should vote. This is true also of those concerned over housing, water companies polluting the rivers, the need for nationalisation, or funding the NHS. And playing up its role as a party of law and order hardly reassures those concerned about institutional misogyny, racism and homophobia in the police.

So the Tories can resurface – and they will do their best to try. One way is to stress the culture wars, a narrative very central to the right-wing media, as we’ve seen in the recent discourse over ‘grooming gangs’. Even other Tories are unhappy about Suella Braverman’s relentless attacks on refugees, on Muslims and even on the police being too ‘woke’. The answer to these attempts to use such issues, by the way, is not moral outrage but class politics which tries to drive a wedge between the Tories and their working-class voters.  Sunak is also positing that his technocratic government will give a handout budget next year to placate workers in preparation for an autumn election. This plus the repeated use of scapegoating is the plan – and it’s one that Starmer’s Labour is barely equipped to deal with, given the party’s refusal to countenance any distinctive policies which mark it out from the Tories.   

The biggest single opposition to all this is the strike wave which continues with remarkable resilience, despite the witch-hunting and attempts to demoralise the strikers.  There is huge resistance here – not least from the nurses, where RCN members have rejected the really poor offer and are going back out on strike later this month. This is despite immense pressure from every quarter, including recommendations to accept from the union bureaucracy.

It’s a great shame that Unison recommended acceptance but even here around a quarter of those voting rejected the deal. Much of the rank and file don’t see why they should accept a crap deal which leaves them much worse off. The Unison officials’ claim that this was the best deal that could be got through negotiation begs the question why the union didn’t think about more strike action in opposition to the deal.   

We have to fight against the union bureaucracy’s view that the best we can get are compromise deals that leave us worse off. This May Day is going to be important, with teachers and nurses back out on strike that week and linking up their struggles. The RCN rejection, following on from the overwhelming vote to reject from the teachers, creates a big problem for the government. It’s time to press our advantage, supporting those unions and others like PCS, the BMA and UCU who are continuing action. Solidarity is the key to winning and to building a powerful rank and file – and can help us prepare for the battles ahead.

This week: I will be joining XR Peace on Friday 21st for the big day of action in Westminster. On Saturday I will be speaking at Stop the War’s Europe for Peace rally in London, and on Sunday I will be travelling to Putney Church for Counterfire’s talk on Monarchy and Democracy – the Levellers and the Putney debates. An antidote to all the coronation rubbish.

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Lindsey German

As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.

Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.

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