It is perverse, but seemingly true, that Britain’s current industrial disputes over pay and jobs are causing more problems for the Labour opposition than they are for the Conservative government. There was a telling example on Wednesday, when Keir Starmer sacked an obscure junior shadow minister, Sam Tarry, for making media appearances on a rail workers’ picket line. The action generated more heat and headlines than anything triggered by Liz Truss’s belligerent pledge this week to impose new legal restrictions on public sector strike action, or Grant Shapps’ instant plan of 16 different measures that would emasculate unions’ rights to strike at all.
There are several lessons here, but the main one is that the Conservatives are not being held to proper account for the spiralling effects of the squeeze on living standards over which they are presiding. They, not Labour, are the government. They, not Labour, set public sector pay policy. They have the formal power to change public finance rules. They also have the informal authority to bring pressure on the two sides to negotiate a settlement. As guardians of the public interest, if nothing else, the government should also avoid unnecessarily provoking the dispute or becoming a protagonist.
Instead, ministers have gone out of their way to keep the disputes going while doing nothing to resolve them. They have done this for partisan reasons, judging that if the strikes become more bitter, they can turn the issue against Labour, rather than acting as a government representing the public interest for a fair settlement and reliable services. This week’s interventions by Ms Truss are perhaps a grim foretaste of the deliberately divisive way in which she would govern if she wins the Conservative leadership. Mr Shapps’s shabby suggestions are equally opportunist. He should be trying to pour water not petrol on the rail dispute.
The turmoil surrounding the ousting of Boris Johnson and the contest to replace him is no excuse for this neglect. The problem is underlying. Ever since the Margaret Thatcher era, the Tory party has felt empowered to ignore organised labour. This is no longer easy when inflation is gouging so deeply into workers’ living standards. Under Theresa May, there was some effort to engage more practically with both sides of industry, but the more the Tory party has turned to the right, as it is doing at the moment, the more anti-union the party has again become. If nothing else, this stupidly subverts the government’s specious claims to be serious about tackling Britain’s poor productivity and low growth.
None of this, however, can be any comfort to Labour. Mr Starmer is entitled to play a long game towards the next election. But Britain has now reached the point in the political cycle where voters need to know a lot more about why Labour should be worth supporting. We know what Labour is against. Mr Starmer must do more to explain what Labour is for. This goes far beyond symbolic gestures such as sacking a junior spokesperson. Instead, it calls for an effective programme to grow the economy and bring businesses and workforces together. The central task for the coming weeks and months is to face directly into the brutality of the cost of living crisis, in the way that members of civil society, as Martin Lewis, Jack Monroe and Marcus Rashford have done, but which Labour’s team has not yet emulated, let alone led.