Five problems with Labour’s trade union position and how to fix it

By Cllr Carl Walker

As an active trade unionist in my UCU branch and Labour member, I have to admit to feeling confused by the bewildering array of ways in which the Labour leadership have managed to be wrong on the recent strikes. Let’s look at them in turn:

1. The Pledge

We should probably start with Pledge 7 of Keir Starmer’s leadership campaign. He noted that he would “stand shoulder to shoulder with trade unions to stand up for working people, tackle insecure work and low pay.” This was a pledge to Labour members which has been broken and has led to an unnecessary loss of trust with members in the Party and from many workers across the country who feel that they’ve been let down. Banning cabinet members from attending pickets is clearly antithetical to standing shoulder to shoulder with trade unions. To suggest otherwise is to look absurd and lose trust as a politician.

2. The messaging

Okay, so the pledge has been broken but maybe with good reason? Or at least an ability to convey a possible reason where, during a cost of living crisis where a fifth of people in working households in the UK now live in relative poverty, absolute poverty has been projected to rise to 18% in 2022-23 and wage growth has been stagnant for 15 years, a party representing working people wouldn’t represent working people. Keir Starmer declared that Labour must change “from a party of protest into a party that can win power” so that it can “then hand that power to working people.” If you break pledges, people don’t believe that you will deliver when in power. You lose trust. Moreover, in these times a party of protest is a party that can win power.

3. Trade unions and the Labour Party

Labour’s own website rightly notes that the Labour Party was formed out of the trade union movement to give working people their own political voice. The link from the workplace to the Party through the affiliated trade unions is what makes it unique to this day. It’s pretty obvious that you can’t have this on your website and actively not support striking workers. You look inauthentic and you lose trust. You can probably see a theme developing by now. Moreover, affiliated unions elect thirteen of the 39 members of Labour’s National Executive Committee and 50% of the delegates to Labour Party Conference. If you actively seek to distance yourself from half of the delegates to your annual Conference and a substantial proportion of the NEC, then you wilfully sow division in your party at a time when we desperately need unity.

4. Public support

So maybe it’s worth sacrificing our political principles, integrity and Party unity to reflect what the public really wants? Unfortunately, that falls down too. Independent polling released by the RMT found strong support for rail workers receiving a fairer deal and for the government intervening to address the rail workers concerns. 70% of the public believe that rail workers should have a negotiated pay rise that takes into account the cost of living, whilst just 11% disagree. The public understand the current levels of corporate greed in this country and understand what inequality feels like. They are on side. And they want to see a Labour Party that is on their side. When they don’t see a viable alternative to this current government-imposed poverty jamboree, they lose trust in the Labour Party.

5. Startling incoherence

Labour’s position on the pickets is unsustainable and has led to divisions in the front bench. You can’t be  “quite relaxed” about Lisa Nandy’s decision to visit striking members of the Communication Workers Union (CWU) and sack Sam Tarry for essentially doing the same, however it was spun about ‘unauthorised media appearances’. It looks weak, incoherent and leads to a lack of trust in Labour as a government in waiting.

Politicians make mistakes. I’m a far less consequential politician than those in the Labour leadership but I’ve made plenty of mistakes and will make more. I try to learn from them and be honest about them. My experience is that people respond pretty well to this because people know that politicians are human beings. Or at least they want to know this. As well as all of the moves above, what erodes trust so badly is not owning your mistakes.  63% of the public now see politicians as merely ‘out for themselves’. We know that declining political trust is associated with disengagement from the political system. Most pertinently for Labour, and bringing us neatly round to the issue of industrial action, declining trust is linked to a decline in support for income redistribution.

Now is the time for a Labour Leadership that is bold, who can call for full support of our trade unions, fully support our workers during this low wages crisis and who are willing to admit when we get it wrong. Firstly, because it’ll help restore a little faith in the honesty of Westminster politics, but mostly because it’s patently the right thing to do. See you on the picket line.

Carl Walker is Deputy Leader of Worthing Council.

Image: RMT picket line. © Copyright The Carlisle Kid and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

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