UNITE leader Len McCluskey’s intervention over the rightward lurch of the Labour Party raises important strategic and tactical questions.
He is far from alone in worrying that the Labour leadership has been too timid in its criticisms of the Conservative government.
Britain is one of the worst-affected countries in the world by coronavirus, with among the highest death tolls, a fact directly attributable to Tory failings: confused advice, non-provision of protective equipment, a bungled and outsourced test-and-trace facility, a late lockdown and a chaotic relaxation of lockdown conditions.
The limitations of the government’s job and income protection schemes — which, as labour law expert Professor Keith Ewing pointed out at the weekend, “gave no rights to workers ... being entirely at the discretion of the employer” — are now becoming clear as unemployment begins to soar.
Instead of exposing the Tories’ truly catastrophic mishandling of the pandemic and its tragic consequences for millions of households, Labour prefers to seek plaudits from the right by dismissing trade union concerns — such as over the Tory decision not to require face masks in schools — and egging the Tories on to ever more aggressive posturing on foreign affairs.
Keir Starmer’s victory in the Labour leadership contest was widely attributed to members’ desire for an “electable” leader, and vacuous pundits and MPs responded to his win by blathering that the party finally had someone who “looks like a prime minister” in charge.
Whether someone “looks like a prime minister” has more to do with the monopoly media’s presentation of them than any inherent qualities, but it is true that since Starmer does not represent a challenge to Britain’s wealthy elite and their predatory foreign wars he escapes the character-assassination campaign that was visited on his predecessor.
Even so, it is difficult to make a tactical case for Labour’s repeated expressions of support for the Conservative government’s approach — if winning an election is its priority. Its timidity is out of step with the public mood. If, on the other hand, restoring corporate confidence that a Labour government would not present any threat to the political and economic status quo is the leadership’s top concern, then its attitude makes sense.
But if Labour members who had previously supported Jeremy Corbyn backed Starmer because they thought he stood the best chance of forming a Labour government, they did not do so on the basis that he would tear up the radical policy agenda developed over the last five years.
As McCluskey points out, he was elected on a platform very similar to Corbyn’s.
Starmer — whose high-handed approach to Labour members has been illustrated by his snubs to local parties, which complain that he fails to inform them when he visits their localities — is unlikely to be moved by accusations of political betrayal.
But “reports of the left’s death are greatly exaggerated,” in the Unite general secretary’s words. There is no point in sugar-coating the enormous reverses suffered by the left in the last nine months: a decisive election defeat, loss of the Labour leadership and a successor regime that is acting ruthlessly to expunge its influence.
Yet the mass membership of the party of labour remains committed to radical change, so increasingly are the memberships of major trade unions and — as McCluskey also observes — voters were rejecting another EU referendum rather than a socialist policy platform when they cast their ballots last winter.
The question must be how we resist the further fragmentation and demoralisation of socialist forces which were not notably united or disciplined even in the Corbyn years.
A combination of twin-track workplace and community organising on the model pioneered by initiatives like Sheffield Needs a Pay Rise with local and national action by unions, in defence of jobs and pay but also to start setting an agenda for the economy we want, is a good place to start.
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