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Starmer can’t afford to be Blair Abandoning the unions will spell disaster

Blue steel (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

Blue steel (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)


August 1, 2022   5 mins

It was one of the hottest summers recorded in British history. Living standards were under intense pressure from an energy crisis and rising inflation. Industrial relations across the country were breaking down. At a factory in north London, working conditions had become so intolerable that more than 100 workers, mostly of Asian and West Indian heritage, went on strike — and were promptly sacked.

The year was 1976. The factory was the Grunwick film processing plant, and strike became a cause cĂ©lĂšbre of the British trade union movement. Dozens of Labour MPs visited the picket line. One MP, Audrey Wise, was left “black and blue” after she spotted a young woman on the picket line being dragged away by police. Wise intervened to prevent her arrest; the police dropped the woman, turned on Wise, and said: “You’ll do.” The next day photographs of the Labour MP behind bars flashed across the national papers.

A month earlier, ministers in the Labour government visited the same picket line. “We came down to show our solidarity,” Education Secretary Shirley Williams explained. One of the picketers, Mahmood Ahmad, thanked the Cabinet ministers for their “great morale boost”.

It was inevitable that the then prime minister, Jim Callaghan, would face scrutiny over his Cabinet ministers’ appearance. During Prime Minister’s Questions, John Stokes, a Conservative MP and member of the Right-wing Monday Club, rose to level the charge. He asked if Callaghan would “rebuke” his ministers for the “most unfitting action” of joining a picket line. “No, Sir,” came the prime Minister’s defiant reply. “I should have thought that the honourable gentleman would go and do the same thing.”

Almost half a century later, it is difficult to imagine Keir Starmer uttering the same words. In the current standoff over railway workers’ pay and job security, he has declared that he is “against the strikes”, going so far as to sack Shadow Transport Minister Sam Tarry after appearing on an RMT picket line. Echoing his boss, Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy said: “a serious party of government does not join picket lines.”

It was a remarkable display of historical illiteracy. Even the so-called Labour “modernisers” of the Eighties and Nineties did not punish their MPs for standing on the picket line. In 1988, Shadow Health Minister Harriet Harman joined nurses on a Unison picket line outside Maudsley Hospital in her constituency, and faced no rebuke from leader Neil Kinnock. A decade later, Gordon Brown’s Parliamentary Private Secretary, Don Touhig, visited a CWU picket line outside a factory in his constituency; no fuss was made. In 2006, a member of Tony Blair’s Cabinet, Hazel Blears, appeared on a Unison picket line outside a local hospital. She was criticised in the press for protesting the consequences of her own government’s health reforms, but there was no suggestion she should be sacked.

Lammy’s comment was indicative of a mindset common among Labour strategists today: that the party will lose elections if it is seen as too close to unions. Often they point to the Callaghan government’s fall in 1979, which they blame on the breakdown of industrial relations during the previous “Winter of Discontent”. Callaghan’s defence of his ministers on the Grunwick picket line is now regarded as an act of tremendous naivety.

In the following decades, modernising leaders Neil Kinnock and John Smith attempted to make some reforms to trade union power within the Labour Party, notably by reducing the unions’ voting strength in party conferences and in the selection process of parliamentary candidates and leader. Yet neither wished to challenge outright the Labour Party’s connections with the unions — they had, after all, founded the Labour Party. In his final party conference speech before his death, John Smith argued that British democracy itself “springs from
the trade union campaigns for the rights of people at work”.

When Tony Blair became leader the following year, this rhetoric quickly evaporated. Stan Greenberg, an American political consultant, told Blair that his “willingness to take on and master the unions” would be the defining feature of his leadership. Greenberg’s research found that although Labour was leading in the polls, “a third of Conservative defectors to Labour worry about excessive union influence”. What was needed was “relentless reassurance” that “the unions no longer seemed to control Labour”.

Mindful of this, Blair went to great lengths to reassure the public that the unions had little sway over the New Labour project. As one union official memorably put it, under New Labour “unions were seen as a virility test; bashing the unions was seen as macho and a way of distancing yourself from the mad auntie in the attic”. And so in the 1997 election, Blair promised that “we will not be held to ransom by the unions”, rejecting the longstanding view that the Labour Party was the “political arm of the trade union movement”. Instead, he declared, Labour was the political arm of the “British people”. Tony Benn, still a Labour MP at the time, bitterly remarked that Tony Blair was the political arm of the Daily Mail.

In government, Blair was broadly able to resist trade union influence because he found alternative means of funding the party, relying on the wealthy. During the Kinnock leadership, there would have been none of the slick Walworth Road research and PR operation without trade union money. In the early Nineties, well over three-fifths of Labour’s funding came from the trade unions. But by 1998, Blair had shrunk union revenue to just 30%, with 20% of party funds coming from the newly created “High Value Donors Unit”.

Yet Labour’s divorce from the union movement was far from finalised. As recently as 2019, Starmer himself joined a BFAWU picket line of McDonald’s workers who were on strike over low pay. It’s only in the years since that, in spite of standing on a radical manifesto when he sought to replace Jeremy Corbyn in 2020, Keir Starmer has spent his leadership renouncing Labour’s once unashamedly supportive relationship with the unions.

This is a mistake. In a YouGov poll last month, just 31% of the public said they believe Labour should distance itself from the unions in part (18%) or completely (13%). While over 80% of the public in the Callaghan years thought the unions were too powerful, just 36% did during the Corbyn years. Today, 58% of the public say the rail strikes are justified, and 66% of the public blame the Government for them.

None of which should come as a surprise. Britain, after all, is no longer living in the shadow of the Winter of Discontent and untrammelled trade-union power. Years of Thatcherite assault and New Labour neglect have seen to that. Today’s concerns are of a different order: Britain is now living in the shadow of the financial crisis and austerity; the public realm has been hollowed out; public services are not working; living standards are still below pre-financial crisis levels; the ongoing energy crisis could see households paying as much as £500 a month on their bills next winter.

There is, to put it simply, nothing like the relative prosperity and confidence of the Nineties. A failed economic model is not a bad memory; it is a living reality. Except, this time, the British public recognise that the culprit is not the power of working people but a vulture capitalism that has picked off the dying carcass of the British state. The Conservative leadership contest has descended into a Margaret Thatcher tribute act. Labour’s response to this crisis cannot be a Tony Blair tribute act. If New Labour was about meeting the politics of the moment, Starmer’s muffled response to the crisis of low pay is anything but.


Richard Johnson is a Lecturer in US Politics and Policy at Queen Mary University of London.

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Christopher Peter
Christopher Peter
1 year ago

Some dubious use of stats in this article. On the question of whether Labour should distance itself from the unions, I wonder how many people answered don’t know, don’t care or not really bothered? For most it’s simply not a big issue in itself. As for the question of whether people think the unions are too powerful, it’s not surprising that the percentage agreeing has fallen so much, as it’s obviously and objectively true that the unions are indeed less powerful now than they were decades ago.
But if you click on the link to the New Statesman article which is the source of the contention that “66% of the public blame the Government for [the rail strikes]”, you find that in fact those 66% think that “the government has done too little to prevent the strikes from happening” – which is not the same thing. The same poll says that about half also say the RMT has done too little to prevent the strikes. Clearly it’s possible (and probably common) to blame more than one party.
Yes, one poll does indicate that “58% of the public say the rail strikes are justified” – but then another shows that “41 per cent of the public support the industrial action, compared with 42 per cent who are opposed.” As the New Statesman article observes, “Voters are sympathetic to the strikers, but they’re not explicitly pro-strike.”
And there’s the rub. The cost of living crisis is real and this country undoubtedly faces significant problems. But strikes rarely, if ever, solve anything. They make life more difficult for other working people – the ones who rely most on public transport, for instance – whilst doing nothing to solve the fundamental issues of inflation, low productivity, energy security and others that are feeding the present crisis. They are a relic of a bygone age when workers’ rights were nothing like as good as they are now. Most people are not impressed by strikes, and Labour are moving with the times in recognising this.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
1 year ago

Good analysis of the data, which are not well examined in the article. Data rarely stand on their, they need some sort of analysis, and this can be subjective even when the analyst is being scrupulous.

Richard Miles
Richard Miles
1 year ago

Industrial relations law completely ignores the interests of the general public. In a typical modern industrial dispute, the public are not directly involved, but are used as hostages by the unions (with many crocodile tears) to extract concessions from their employers. Without restricting the right of individuals to withdraw their labour, or otherwise changing the rights of employees & employers, the government should give the public specific civil law rights to recover their losses from anyone encouraging or conspiring them to do so, such as militant trade union leaders. As it stands, immunity goes too far & is an injustice to the general public.

Richard Steele
Richard Steele
1 year ago
Reply to  Richard Miles

Given that trade unions have a reported membership of 6.67 million in the UK (and their members will have dependents) I think its reasonable to suggest a considerable overlap of interest with the general public, and not the complete dichotomy you suggest. Trade unions were formed originally to campaign against grievous injustices and sought to improve the human rights conferred on working people. Successive governments have already weakened the ability of trade unions to take such action in a number of important ways. This is evidenced by the massive reduction in strike activity in recent decades. Your proposed solution would appear to make it impractical for workers to withdraw their labour as the costs of doing so would become punitive. But I expect that is the idea.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 year ago
Reply to  Richard Miles

So if you want to make it impossible to strike (without facing financial ruin) how do you propose workers ensure their wages keep up with inflation when their employer refuses to negotiate?
Why would an employer enter negotiations in good faith if they know the workers can’t withdraw their labour?

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
1 year ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

They, we, anyone in this country can withdraw their labour anytime.
Perhaps what you meant was “can’t withdraw their labour without breaking their contract conditions and ultimately losing their job”?

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 year ago

The original post to which I was replying wanted to make it almost financially impossible to do so. Therefore I was asking the question how would workers ensure their wages remain fair if striking wasn’t an option?

Peter B
Peter B
1 year ago

This article starts with a very partial view on the Grunwick dispute which suggests this was all about race and working conditions. Since I lived through the 1970s and heard this extensively reported at the time and the author almost certainly did not, I can say with confidence that this was not the core of the dispute. Nor was the dispute nearly as black and white as he would have people believe. It was more about pay rates (the employees no doubt had a good case) and whether employers has the freedom to operate within the law without secondary picketing (whether by Labour MPs or others). Whatever you think about Margaret Thatcher, she at least sorted out excessive union power which was – amongst other things – crippling Britain up to the mid 1980s.
But the author is still a young man and this is all doubtless outside his “lived experience”.
It’s hard to plough through the rest when the article starts out from a false premise.
The later assertion that there is majority public support for current rail strikes beggars belief. Perhaps some cherry-picked opinion poll might be found to indicate this. But I suggest that the author “needs to get out more” on this one.
Finally, is is notable that union activity these days is largely limited to state or quasi/ex-state organisations (like the railways and privatised companies like BT). New companies seem to neither have not want trade unions. In thirty five years working in technology in the UK, there has never been a single moment when I thought “I wish there was a trade union to stand up for me”. Quite the reverse – it is understood that you must stand up for yourself and negotiate your own salary and that life isn’t fair, never will be and more importantly should not be (the cost to freedom being way too high). One might wonder from all the above whether the state is in fact the worst employer in Britain … but correlation is not causation …

Dave Young
Dave Young
1 year ago
Reply to  Peter B

Peter B’s smug and patronising riposte may be confident, but it’s ill-informed. He speaks of lived experience. I was on the picket line – one of the most frightening and brutal I ever encountered. Police racism and overt violence part of their enthusiastic and totally disproportionate deployment in a proxy battle between government and organised labour. “You must… negotiate your own salary” indicates the writer has no knowledge of what it’s like to be hourly paid and powerless. The most successful manufacturing industries in Germany during this period opted for collective bargaining and union reps on the board.

Gordon Arta
Gordon Arta
1 year ago
Reply to  Dave Young

Germany’s unions are nothing like the Left-dominated self-serving cabals of those in the UK. They recognise that their interests are best served by efficient, highly productive, successful industries and companies. The UK’s union barons are only interested in their own power bases.

Valerie Taplin
Valerie Taplin
1 year ago
Reply to  Gordon Arta

Well said. Unions would undoubtedly be beneficial in Dickensian times, but nowadays employees are generally well protected and provided for. It seems that the Union bosses want to feed their own avarice, and would happily cause their employer to go bankrupt in the process.

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
1 year ago
Reply to  Gordon Arta

Absolutely. I do business in both countries and there is no comparison with the UK unions.

Peter B
Peter B
1 year ago
Reply to  Dave Young

You are wilfully misrepresenting my words here.
You have also missed the opportunity to comment on what your view of what the Grunwick dispute was really about and gone straight for the personal angle. So come on – apart from your criticism of the police, what was it actually about ?
In fact, my “lived experience” during the 1970s included my father being unemployed for 2 years and being the only child in my class needing free school meals. I drew the conclusion that I would need to look after myself (if able) and a strong desire never to let this happen to me and my family.
I was certainly not saying that looking after yourself is going to work for everyone – merely that it applies to an increasing number of people. In my view, that’s a good thing. People who can take individual responsibility for their future should do so. The welfare state is for those who cannot – and there will always be some – and not a career option.
Being hourly paid does not mean you are automatically powerless. Success today is about skills, learning, teamwork and having a good attitude.
Personally, I hope my son gets his first job at somewhere like McDonalds where he can learn about these things – as well as customer service. I certainly do not look down on “McJobs” as so many on the left seem to.
I hope that doesn’t come across as “smug and patronising” for you.

Martin Bell
Martin Bell
1 year ago
Reply to  Dave Young

I fully agree with your final sentence. As a union member myself, primarily as an insurance policy in case I should ever be made redundant, I see traces of that more mature approach to the proper role of unions in industry in the UK union movement. It would be great if that attitude prevailed in the UK. But they are only traces, I’m afraid. Rightly or wrongly, as a result of the political/ideological confrontations of the past, unions are seen differently in the UK. I am old enough to remember the 70s and 80s and Labour only became electable after it reduced the influence of organised labour on its policies and governance. Starmer may or may not be our generation’s Neil Kinnock, but the Labour party would be wise to ignore the siren voices of the author and others.

polidori redux
polidori redux
1 year ago

The Labour Party ceased to be working class party decades ago, leaving the working class, both unionised and non-unionised, without any political representation. It would de well to amalgamate with the Lib/Dems and The Conservative (not conservative) Party and fester away in the corner. Perhaps, in the resultant void, genuine political parties, parties funded by their members, might arise and prosper.

Peter B
Peter B
1 year ago
Reply to  polidori redux

This is not quite correct. The Labour party still believes in middle-class trade unionism in areas like the Civil Service, teching and the NHS. Just not the “hands dirty” jobs.

Caroline Watson
Caroline Watson
1 year ago
Reply to  Peter B

Quite. If these were teachers, striking because they wanted little children to wear masks in schools, or because they had been prevented from teaching ‘gender’ ideology, Labour would support them. They would also support the BMA in its continuing campaign to prevent patients from seeing GPs.

polidori redux
polidori redux
1 year ago
Reply to  Peter B

I referred specifically to working class people – whether unionised or not.

Peter B
Peter B
1 year ago
Reply to  polidori redux

Apologies. But I’m basically agreeing with you and share your frustrations.

Jon Hawksley
Jon Hawksley
1 year ago

What the article appears to be saying is Starmer should follow public opinion. His job is to help the UK overcome its problems. He should tell the Unions that inflation is caused by increased costs of supplies, particularly energy and labour shortages. In the immediate future average living standards will fall because total production of goods and services will be less. Using Union powers to sustain living standards will mean either others must suffer more or inflation will spiral up with no one regaining their living standards. Inflation can then be reduced by a recession – is that what they want?
He should also be saying the UK is nearly self sufficient in energy and the loss in living standards from energy prices is matched by windfall price increases for oil and gas produced in the UK. In a time of war the government should buy all that production at the pre-crisis prices and use the proceeds from selling it on the open market to buy the oil and gas needed in the UK, that it would sell at pre-crisis prices. Otherwise what is the point in being self sufficient? Oil and gas producers should not expect to profit out of wars.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
1 year ago
Reply to  Jon Hawksley

Good post. Incidentally, I call him Ikea Starmer because he is so wooden.

Maureen Finucane
Maureen Finucane
1 year ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Imagine the borefest when they elect Maybot Mark 2 as leader.

Earil Powston
Earil Powston
1 year ago
Reply to  Jon Hawksley

The big problem with Starmer is that, even if we take your argument as an objective truth, he lacks the guts to make this argument to the public. In fact, the over arching theme of his career as “leader” (someone who is supposed to shape public opinion, as much as being accountable to it), is explicitly a fear of public sentiment.
Unsurprisingly, despite being leader for two+ years, the public are now less clear on what Starmer stands for than Liz Truss or #Ready4Rishi (according to Ipsos)

Maureen Finucane
Maureen Finucane
1 year ago

What exactly does the Labour Party stand for if not worker’s rights?

Caroline Watson
Caroline Watson
1 year ago

Exactly. The clue is in the name!

Caroline Watson
Caroline Watson
1 year ago

The whole purpose of the Labour Party is to be the political wing of the trade union movement. It would win far more votes by ditching identity politics and supporting female rights than it will by turning against the unions.

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
1 year ago

I doubt there is a union leader in the UK who would not rather see his members on lower wages in a closed shop, than see workers get better money elsewhere with freedom of contract.
I have been in many unions over the years – the first 30 years of my working life was all heavy manual work – and been on strike many times.
There are some local shop stewards who really believe the legend and try to do right but they are outnumbered by the power-hungry as you go higher up the tree.

Samuel Gee
Samuel Gee
1 year ago

I’m not wholly on board with the argument but the nub of it seems correct. How can a political Party called Labour and founded by trades unions to represent their wider political and social interests, allow itself to be embarassed by trades unionism in practice. It doesn’t matter whether you like or support the Labour Party, or approve, or disapprove, of strike action. That basic problem is untenable. And Blair had a decade of global economic growth to allow that tension to be hidden, Starmer does not.
Game theory wise Starmer should adopt that pugnacious Callghan approach but without the Bennite or Corbynite analysis. “It’s a lawful strike, called under rules designed by the Conservatives and Labour will always back working people asserting their lawful rights in negotiations with their employers. That’s what we are here for. ”
People who don’t like unions or strikes or the Labour Party are not going to vote Labour anyway so he has nothing to lose. And I am not Labour and don’t support public sector strikes and definitely not this one. But I couldn’t disagree with a statement like that.

Richard Calhoun
Richard Calhoun
1 year ago

The Labour Party needs to make itself financially independent of the Trade Union movement.
The British electorate will be concerned that when push comes to shove the Unions will take precedence over the electorate.
Labour will struggle to win another election outright until they are seen to be independent of the Unions.