By Martin Wicks
“Labour must support those fighting to defend their living standards when, in effect, they face a pay cut of up to 10% – if it doesn’t, you wonder what the purpose of the Party is.” – John Cruddas, MP
On the morning after the Wakefield by-election, Keir Starmer declared that Labour was “on the side of the workers”. How can anybody take that seriously, when he instructed – no democratic discussion under his regime – Shadow Cabinet members and Parliamentary Private Secretaries not to attend RMT picket lines? He wasn’t even ‘sitting on the fence’: he declared that the Party opposed the strikes. How can the Party be ‘a united Party’ when he acts in such a high-handed way against all the instincts of the membership? Having issued the edict, he is obliged to take action against those who defied it, or else he will be denounced by the Tory media for being weak.
What are you going to do about the 50 MPs who ignored Starmer’s view, David Lammy was asked on TV. He suspected that the Chief Whip would speak to them and tell them that “a serious party of government doesn’t join picket lines”. Cue social media posts of David Lammy and Keir Starmer on UCU picket lines!
Aside from absolute Starmer loyalists, this position has been received by the membership with a mixture of disbelief and disgust. Whatever red meat you throw at the right wing press, they will still demand more. Despite Labour opposing the strikes, they were still denounced as ‘Labour’s strikes’.
John Cruddas, no raging left winger, told readers of Labour List that the RMT strikes are “the canary in the coal mine” of a coming fight between workers and a government trying “to ensure that the costs of the pandemic are transferred to working people”. If Labour doesn’t support these workers defending their living standards “you wonder what the purpose of the Party is,” he said.
David Lammy’s execrable performance on TV underlined Cruddas’s comments. Asked about whether he supported airline workers who were going to strike, not for a wage increase but the reinstatement of a 10% cut imposed during the pandemic, he said No. This was imposed by way of ‘fire and rehire’. Lammy even had the temerity to declare that, “We are all feeling the pinch, as a result of inflation.” It must tough getting by on an MP’s wage.
As we see bewigged barristers picket outside the Old Bailey, a wide range of workers are either balloting now, such as the CWU, or likely to in the next couple of months – the BMA, NEU and probably the FBU. At issue is not just wages but staffing levels sufficient to provide a service which does not wear out the staff. Intensification of work and staff shortages are driving people out. All public services are under intense strain. As a result of years of austerity, people are dying because staff levels are insufficient. The worst example is the Ambulance Service where ambulances are queuing outside hospitals and taking too long to get to life threatening emergencies.
In response to the disgraceful stance of the Starmer clique, Tottenham CLP had the right idea. It passed an emergency resolution which expressed support for the RMT, condemned Starmer’s edict on attending picket lines, and called on their MP – none other than Lammy – to join the picket lines! The resolution should be replicated wherever possible in other CLPs. So far as the affiliated unions are concerned, they should say in no uncertain terms that the Party leadership should abandon its position. Those affiliated unions such as the GMB and UNISON that have supported Starmer on the Party NEC should start supporting their members.
Writing in the Observer, Starmer boasted that Labour was “now firmly in the centre ground of British politics.” This ersatz Blairism Mark 2 is absurd. Whilst the original might have appeared to have some credence at a time when globalisation and liberalisation appeared to be irresistibly advancing, after the great crash of 2007-8 and the disastrous consequences of New Labour’s privatisation agenda, it is delusional to believe that they can repeat ‘the project’. We face an existential global environmental, social, economic and political crisis. We need to push back the reach of the market and de-commodify those public services that have been privatised directly or opened up to big business. Yet even when it comes to talking about ‘net zero’, Starmer says a Labour Britain will become the ‘market leader’ in the industries and new technologies the world will need.
Keir Starmer has said that “when businesses profit, everybody gains”. This contradicts the real life experience of many millions of people. We have an economy in which exploitation of labour is rampant. When privatised rail companies make a profit, much of it is siphoned out of the country into tax havens and the pockets of shareholders. Privatisation, revered by New Labour, has been an abject failure, reflected in worse services and increased exploitation of the workforce.
Underlying the financial crisis on the railways is not just the impact of Covid but the collapse of private companies. As a result of the demise of Railtrack plc and the track maintenance companies, the state had to pick up the bill. As a result, Network Rail has debt of more than £50bn. When the system was privatised, we were told that private companies would invest and the state wouldn’t have to!
As is well known, re-nationalisation of the railways is overwhelmingly popular, with even a majority of Tory voters supporting it. Yet Starmer opposes it. Profit is literally a waste of money, siphoned out of the industry instead of being invested in it. In the NHS millions are wasted by the competition for contracts as well as the disastrous costs of Private Finance Initiative schemes which New Labour pushed through.
Labour’s opposition to the RMT strikes is based on the mistaken idea that it will enhance their chances of winning a general election. How exactly will it encourage public sector workers to vote for them if they cannot support their struggle for a decent living standard, and services which don’t exhaust them because of staff shortages? Workers are very angry about the fact that they were applauded during the pandemic but are now expected to have their earnings decimated further after twelve years of austerity. They know fellow workers who died because of their close proximity to many people, while others were working from home.
One final point. On one level Sharon Graham of Unite is right. Workers can only rely on their unions to defend them. But Unite is still affiliated to the Labour Party. It should surely mobilise its members who are in the Party and its sponsored MPs to demand a change of direction from Labour. It should demand that Labour supports this movement of workers who are not prepared to be sacrificed on the altar of ongoing austerity.
Martin Wicks is a member of South Swindon CLP.
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