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Is Labour still about labour?

Laura Koscielska explores the growing divide between Labour and its supporter base.

More and more people, both supporters of the Labour Party and its members, are growing frustrated with the party’s lack of solidarity with striking workers and trade unions, especially in the face of the rapidly rising cost of living. Apart from that, the stance on the re-nationalisation of key sectors such as rail, water, energy, and mail, is not clear. Both, it is argued, lie in the interest of the working class. But if Labour, a party founded by trade unions, does not stand by workers, what is really left of it? 

Some people have noticed that the Labour Party is becoming progressively detached from the needs of the working class. During the rail strike in June, there was no firm support for industrial action voiced by the leader of the party and Starmer even urged his frontbench MPs to stay away from picket lines, which suggests that he does not feel fully confident about the party’s involvement in such disputes. What followed was Sam Tarry being dismissed as shadow transport minister for doing broadcast interviews from an RMT picket line, to which unions reacted with understandable frustration

The decision angered many members of the Labour Party and the new policy ordering senior MPs not to join picket lines was questioned by mayors Sadiq Khan and Andy Burnham and others. Khan said that he would happily join a picket line and that “the trade unions have been a core force for good to our country over the recent weeks, months and years.” According to Burnham, Labour might come over as a party that undermines workers fighting for better work conditions and the cost of living crisis if they’re not careful. 

Actively avoiding controversy stemming from supporting strikes can appear to be wise, as industrial action is often portrayed as selfish, unreasonable, and even dangerous by certain mainstream media. Distancing oneself from such heated debate minimises the potential damage that could be inflicted on the party’s image. 

However, detaching oneself from strike action as a party founded by trade unions and aiming to represent the interests of working people is, according to many, a mistake that puts Labour’s integrity and core values at risk. For tens of thousands of working-class people, it means that the party dissociates itself from their cause and neglects their needs. 

Apart from that, just recently, the stance on re-nationalisation of key sectors such as rail, water, energy, and mail, was practically thrown in the bin. The pledge of re-nationalisation made by Labour during the Corbyn era was dropped by Starmer, with the exception of the railways. The leader of the Labour Party also said they will not tackle private sector outsourcing of the NHS in case they win

Given the horrendous prices of train tickets and energy, it is not difficult to argue that the privatisation of these sectors did more harm than good. Especially in the face of how countries such as France, Germany, and Spain deal with these industries, there is a feeling gaining momentum that we ought to change something and bring them back into the hands of the public. The NHS, too, many argue, ought to be protected from privatisation, as private sector outsourcing means less accessibility. Aside from healthcare, private water companies continue to dump increasingly more toxic pollutants into UK’s waters and environmental groups call for their nationalisation in order to protect water supplies. Overall, the case for re-nationalisation is very strong and deserves consideration. 

It is visible that there isn’t a strong unison between Labour members and their leader as to whether actively supporting strikes and re-nationalisation is the correct way forward or not, highlighting the ideological tensions and polarisation within the party. Labour is not all about labour and the interest of the working class, which is why Starmer might face even harsher criticism and his formerly celebrated leadership could be questioned further. In the face of the threat of a general strike, Labour has to unequivocally choose its side and decide its ideological position. It may be the challenge that will determine the future of the party.

Image: Mtaylor848, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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