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Keir Starmer in the House of Commons

Keir Starmer in the House of Commons. Photo: UK Parliament / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0, license linked at bottom of article

Keir Starmer has chosen to side with the Tories against the RMT, but for all his forensic electoralism, the public are broadly backing the workers, writes Terina Hine

Which side are you on? For the leader of a political party founded by the trade union movement this should not be a difficult question, yet as thousands stood on picket lines in the biggest rail strike in 30 years, Keir Starmer warned his shadow ministers against joining the pickets.

UK CPI inflation has jumped to 9% and is expected to rise to 11% in the autumn. Is it any surprise RMT members are saying no to a measly 2% pay offer? Even with the potential for an additional 1% (based on reaching productivity targets) the offer is a real terms pay cut. All the while, year on year, politicians have awarded themselves pay rise after pay rise. 

And now, on the first day of the RMT’s industrial action, it was revealed that the PM’s chief of staff and his Chancellor Rishi Sunak are devising a plan to end restrictions on directors pay and banker bonuses. This is Tory levelling-up in action: pay rises for the rich, pay cuts for the rest. 

So why is Labour refusing to support the striking workers?

The Labour Party may have been established as the party of labour, but it has a long history of betrayal of the trade union movement. Between 1945 and 1951 the Attlee government ordered troops to break strikes and cross picket lines 18 times. In the miners’ strike in the 1980s the then Labour leader Neil Kinnock failed to support the strikers against Thatcher’s brutal attacks, and with all the talk of our return to the 1970s we shouldn’t forget it was a Labour government that fought the unions during the Winter of Discontent.

So Starmer is following in a long tradition. Plus, after appealing to members on a left-wing unity ticket, he is keen to distance himself as much as possible from the Labour left. He is also desperate to avoid any controversy - he really wants to be Mr Boring to contrast with Johnson’s recklessness - and in a by-election week is especially keen not to rock the boat. Strikes cause inconvenience, and are therefore unpopular, or so the logic goes. Silence is the ticket.

Some in government clearly wish to use the rail dispute as a “wedge issue” to gain political capital through sowing division. Oliver Dowden, Tory party chair, tweeted a petition to “stop Labour’s strikes” despite Starmer’s lack of support and the fact the RMT isn’t an affiliated union, but then Tory attacks don’t need to be based on truth. Blaming Labour for the strikes however is failing to cut through; latest polls show 66% of the public blame the government.

It seems neither party understands the mood of the country. Rising to the Tory attacks Starmer has ended up exposing divisions in his own party and his own growing alienation as MPs openly defy his orders not to support the pickets. The BBC reported a number of backbench Labour MPs expressed support for the strikes and at least three frontbenchers tweeted pictures of themselves on picket lines (Kate Osborne, Paula Barker and Navendu Mishra).

The RMT’s demands are hardly controversial – a below inflation level pay rise and protection from compulsory redundancy. Supporting a wage increase for the workers who kept Britain moving during the pandemic might indeed be a vote winner. Polls show the strikers have the support of commuters and the majority of the public blame the government for the failure to reach agreement; that Starmer is unable to recognise this shows how out of touch the Labour leadership is.  

The narrative that says Labour must steal the Tories’ clothes to win is nonsense. The governing party is languishing in its own mess, it has led the country to food banks and insecure employment, to low wages and low growth. This strike is part of the fight back. This is what Labour should be shouting from the roof tops.

The cost of living crisis affects us all. Government ministers on six-figure salaries giving lectures on pay restraint is not a vote winner and talk of fiscal responsibility while lifting the lid on bankers’ bonuses is far from convincing. Workers have had it with excuses. This is why more not less strikes will be forthcoming; why teachers, doctors, nurses, posties, civil servants and barristers are all threatening to join in. And it is why they will win public support.

A deal with the rail union looks a long way off, and it seems the government is prepared to talk tough. But the tough line will be hard to hold, even harder when up against striking teachers, more so against striking medics. It has been clear for weeks that senior ministers see the battle with the RMT as a defining moment, a necessary victory to keep other unions in their place, and a welcome distraction from Johnson’s political crisis. That Starmer is backing the wrong side is a disgrace. 

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