The Labour Party is potentially entering into a period of sustained popularity after a disastrous few weeks of Conservative management of the economy. At the peak of the crisis, opinion polls from YouGov indicate Labour has a 56 point lead ahead of the Conservative’s 19, suggesting that the British electorate would rather have Keir Starmer as Prime Minister than a Conservative leader (at the time of writing, this is Rishi Sunak).
But how different is the current Labour Party from the Conservatives, in terms of their economic strategies, and more broadly their social policy? And if the Labour Party is so vastly different from the Conservatives, are they sticking to their socialist roots under Keir Starmer?
Economically and ideologically speaking, the two main parties are somewhat different in how they would govern the country – the Conservatives largely favour free market and trickle down economics, whilst the Labour Party tend to advocate for more collectivist and redistributionist strategies.
An example of this can be seen with the former Prime Minister Liz Truss’ mini-budget, which proposed a cut to the income tax of Britain’s top earners, the idea being that this would increase investment and these benefits would, in turn, 'trickle down' to the poorest of society. Furthermore, there are predictions that Jeremy Hunt will “usher in a new wave of austerity” to cope with growing levels of inflation. All of which are typical right-wing strategies in managing the economy, particularly during a recession.
In contrast, during the Labour Party conference in September, Keir Starmer outlined his plans to reintroduce the 45p tax for those earning over £150,000, with Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves promising that money would be invested in boosting the NHS particularly during the winter. All of which, again, are common initiatives of left-wing parties.
This suggests that the main two parties do currently have differing economic strategies to deal with the cost of living crisis, which is all too real for working class people in Britain today. But does Starmer himself appear to support working class people or is he just a ‘red Tory’ at heart?
Trade unions are one of the long standing organisations which truly have working class interests at the forefront of everything they do. The Labour Party has always had a close relationship with trade unions, as the initial party was created by trade union members so that they could enter the political scene. This meant that Labour was traditionally designed to represent working class interests, thus relationships with the trade unions were at its ideological core. In addition, the Labour Party receives a significant proportion of its funding from trade unions, further installing its connection with the movement.
Starmer, however, has been rather conflicted over trade union action and in one case expelled Shadow Transport Minister Sam Tarry for joining the picket line. Whilst this was denied by Starmer, claiming he was sacked for making up policy “on the hoof,” Starmer’s hostile attitude towards trade unions continues. Although Starmer once said he “unequivocally supports the right to strike” by repealing the Trade Union Act 2016, he still assured various news broadcasters that he would not join strikes and even ordered front benchers to stay away from the picket line. It appears that some of Starmer’s actions go against the unions, consequently abandoning Labour’s core principles.It seems that Starmer is toying with appealing to voters, and attempting to stay loyal to Labour’s core principles.
In comparison, former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn hailed the importance of trade unions in the fight against the capitalist class and believed the party should “never, ever apologise for the closeness of our relationship with the trade union movement.” This suggests that Starmer is moving the party away from its close ties with the unions that Corbyn once celebrated, and taking a more safe approach when it comes to appealing to voters. Does this make Starmer a Tory? Surely this approach suggests that actually supporting workers’ rights is no longer at the forefront of the party’s agenda?
It seems that Starmer witnessed the electoral defeat of 2019 as a rejection of left-wing values and wants to bring the party back to a centre-left position (as Tony Blair did), to appear more electable. This includes being rather careful over supporting the trade unions, so as not to aggravate the electorate by appearing to endorse rail and postal disruptions. However, it should be noted that all Labour PM’s and leaders of opposition (with the exception of Corbyn) had varying degrees of concern over the influence of trade unions, including Harold Wilson (with ‘In Place of Strife’), Neil Kinnock and Tony Blair. So perhaps Starmer isn’t much different from previous Labour leaders and is keen to keep the unions at a distance.
However, what is the Labour Party without the wider socialist movement? The deliberate discord with the trade unions should alert workers that perhaps the Labour Party doesn’t “unequivocally support workers,” and that a leader who is so conflicted over his support of unions may not deserve their “unequivocal support” in return. Working people will find themselves being betrayed yet again by the establishment and right-wing of the party. This will hit particularly hard for those experiencing the cost of living crisis where the two main parties appear to inadequately support the working class.
Although some may argue that Labour should focus on being ‘electable,’ this ‘electability’ would be futile if the party abandons the wider socialist struggle. It is about time the Labour Party (under a socialist leader) truly reflected the struggles of working class people, and this should include unapologetically joining the picket lines, working with the unions in demanding a fair pay and better working conditions deal from the government, and leading Britain into a future where power and capital are controlled by those who create it.