Starmer Doesn’t Seem to Get his Support Back

When it comes to the history of trade unions, Labour has a lot to say. Labour’s relations with unions and the working-class is an existential part of the Labour Party. As Billy Hayes, the former leader of the Communication Workers Union (CWU), mentions: “The relationship is more than a policy process and an agency of power … It is public testimony to the remarkable political creativity of working people, ‘hands’ who gave themselves political voices”. And Sir Keir Rodney Starmer, the current Labour leader, knows the importance of this relationship very well.

Starmer won the local Labour Party elections back in 2019 in circumstances when Jeremy Corbyn had stepped down from the leadership after the 2019 general election, in which Labour lost 32% of its votes, a total number of 60 seats. A situation of four times losing the election to the Conservatives may be the worst performance for Labour since 1935.

Starmer pledged to be effective against the Conservatives: “Forensic, effective opposition to the Tories in Parliament” as the opposition leader said; and knowing the essential importance of unions for him, “Strengthening workers’ rights and trade unions” was another pledge he made. As party leader, he had some internal “reform” policies as well, which did not end well. The fight from both within and without the party has made him take some controversial and paradoxical measures. The million-dollar question is how close could he get to the ideals? And how did the trade unions react to his policies of seemingly “strengthening” trade unions?

Starmer for Trade Unions? Or Engaged with Factionalism?

Sir Keir Starmer, who is considered to be a socialist, has made numerous remarks on supporting trade unions and the workforce. For instance, in his response to the 2020 UK-EU Trade Deal, he criticised the Johnson government, saying: “… The deal is a thin agreement. It does not provide adequate protection for British manufacturing …” He continued by saying the deal is not good enough, but since there is no time for renegotiation, and if not passed, “… Jobs would be put at risk [and] Businesses would collapse …” He is not against the deal.

To support creating jobs, Labour proposed the plan of 400,000 “Job Promise” under Starmer. In a tweet, he publicly advocated joining trade unions. He also made a pledge to make the Labour Party “unashamedly pro-business” in a plan to cut taxes for firms and extend business rate holidays, which does not seem much like the socialist or left-wing Labour background that he is from, making his stance on the subject a little ambiguous. But at least, it gives an idea of support for the unions and workforce. On the other hand, many of his decisions seem based on the prospects of winning the future general election rather than having a firm ideological background. In a recent interview with the BBC, he said: “I stand by the principles and the values that are behind the pledges I made to our members, but the most important pledge I made is that I would turn our party into a party that would be fit for government”; and in answer to the question of “unity or winning”, he emphasised on winning. His actions are dividing the party more than ever before and making trade union leaders angry.

The apparently socialist leader, Sir Keir, has been weakening the far left-wingers and trying to bring the party to a more central, or even right, position.


Starmer supporters in the Labour National Executive Committee (NEC) banned four left-wing organisations – Labour Against the Witchhunt, Labour in Exile network, Resist, and Socialist Appeal – from the party through vague accusations of anti-Semitic acts, which caused the trade unions’ anger. Unite, one of the Labour member trade unions, made a statement following the event saying: “While working class communities are continuing to bear the brunt of the sickness and employment worries made much worse by Conservative mishandling of the pandemic, Labour is abandoning the field of battle against this government to turn its fire on its members instead.” Unions have half of the votes at Labour conferences and Unite is one of the largest unions.


Another case bringing fury to trade unions was Starmer’s attempts at reforming the Labour rulebook. Starmer is trying to change the leadership election system, which is currently based on a one-member one-vote mechanism, suggesting it be replaced with the old conventional electoral college which had operated prior to 2014. In the proposed method, a third of the votes would be provided by MPs, a third by trade unions, and the other third by members. Supporters of the change claim that this will give more power and real importance to trade unions, while the leaders of trade unions mostly oppose it. The leader of the Transport and Travel Union (TSSA) has stated his union’s strong opposition to the newly proposed idea. TSSA, which was a Starmer supporter back in the 2020 leadership election, now calls the new change “gerrymandering.” Sharon Graham, who happens to be the general secretary of Unite, called the plan “unfair, undemocratic and a backward step.” The union called it a “Distraction” in a tweet. Unite is the second largest British trade union. BFAWU, the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union, disaffiliated itself from the Labour Party a few days ago, saying: “… The Labour Party has travelled away from the aims and hopes of working class organisations like ours, believing Starmer has made a division among trade unions and members who are caught in factionalism, and securing the field for a right-wing successor rather than focusing on the true aim of the party which is the working classes. 


What’s the Solution?


In the end, it does not seem that Starmer can win a general election without solving the internal disputes first. Labour needs to become an integrated body before the next general election, while Andy McDonald, Starmer’s former shadow employment rights and protections secretary, has called it “more divided than ever”. Trade unions are dissatisfied, but the party is arguing over leadership election rule changes rather than being busy with national-level concerns.


While the country is on a try to have an exit plan from the pandemic-induced economic crisis, with fuel problems arising, it is time for Labour to put internal disputes aside, stop factionalism at any cost, and show care for the working class and businesses. There are some real steps that Labour can take for the working class; for example, the Institute for Employment Rights (IER) has already listed a Manifesto for Labour Law which is worthy of attention and consists of 25 recommendations for reforms. Fighting both from within and without is not possible. Starmer’s main concern is winning, to change the country in favour of the working class. this is the only possible way to gather enough support for the next general election: Unity!

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