Keir Starmer May Be On Course For Power — But Troubles With The Trade Unions Lie Ahead

The Labour leader's careful quest for power has put him at odds with the growing demands of some union leaders.
Keir Starmer told the TUC conference that his party " is not doing its job when it’s in opposition."
Keir Starmer told the TUC conference that his party " is not doing its job when it’s in opposition."
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As the Tories show no sign of getting off the train towards self-destruction, the Labour Party increasingly looks like a government in waiting.

While that will be a welcome prospect for Keir Starmer after 12 years in opposition, attention is already turning to the nitty gritty of what his party would do in government.

While the Labour leader may be convincing the public at large that he has a rightful place in No.10 — with some polls putting his party 30-plus points ahead — there are some within his own tribe that harbour scepticism about what a Labour government might look like.

The trade unions, the Labour Party’s biggest funder and long-standing ally, are snapping at Starmer’s heels, demanding to know how he would solve the cost of living crisis that is forcing them out on strike in huge numbers.

On the one hand, Starmer wants to keep the unions and their members on side. On the other, it is unlikely to endear him to the public if he is too closely associated with the disruption affecting ordinary voters’ lives.

Starmer’s cautious approach to winning power then, may prove incompatible with the demands of trade unions. And that poses a problem for the Labour leader as he makes his case to the public.

The mistrust some unions feel towards Starmer reached a height in the summer when he told shadow ministers that they should not attend picket lines.

The latest round of Tory chaos, which culminated in the rapid exit of Liz Truss, provided a convenient platform for Starmer to smooth over some of this friction after months of fighting.

At the Trades Union Congress (TUC) gathering in Brighton this week, he vowed to “tear up” the Trade Union Act 2016 and “oppose and repeal” any further anti-trade union laws that might make their way on to the statute book.

But to silence in the hall, he indicated he would not change tack on picket lines. He said he would “not apologise for approaching questions on industrial action as a potential Labour government”.

“You’re representing the democratic choice of your members, you’re doing your job and I respect that — but my job is different,” he said.

An exasperated Sharon Graham, the general secretary of Unite, has asked Starmer: “Whose side are you on?”

Deeds not words

Indeed, with teachers, nurses and postal workers all poised to go on strike this winter, the Labour leader will have a hard task avoiding Graham’s question.

A recent interview Starmer gave with Good Morning Britain has unsettled some union watchers.

The Labour leader stalled when asked whether he backed the nurses’ strike and would grant them their pay demand of 5% above inflation.

“I completely understand why they are making that ask — wages have been low for a long time, they’re working really hard and prices are going through the roof,” he said.

Presenter Susanna Reid interjected: “If you came into power and you were in charge of their wages, would you grant it?”

“There is a mechanism for dealing with their pay and I would want that to run its course,” Starmer replied.

“The government has put us in this position and we need to get out of this position. The only way in the end to get out of this position is to deal with the cost of living crisis...we need a longer-term answer to this.”

But unions are demanding answers now.

One senior source close to the teaching unions told HuffPost UK they feared Starmer’s answer meant he “won’t reverse Tory cuts”.

“It’s insulting to public servants who worked so hard to keep the country going during Covid and since 2010 seen their professions decimated and their pay cut in real terms by a fifth,” they said.

“Keir Starmer is about to win the next election by default but many people are asking what is the point of a Labour government if the policy will be the same as the Tories?”

Selections controversy

Another row that caused tension with the unions is the matter in which Labour selects its parliamentary candidates.

The left suspect that a factional operation is underway to keep its proponents and trade unionists off candidate shortlists . They point to recent selections in West Lancashire, Hastings and Rye and Camberwell and Peckham, where they claim leftwingers had been deliberately excluded.

“There’s growing unease about it,” one union source told HuffPost UK.

“Some unions have had nearly all their aspiring candidates blocked, certainly their priority candidates — some of them on spurious grounds. It looks as if they are making the rules up as they go along as they don’t want candidates that will strongly back trade union causes.”

Starmer’s aides have strenuously denied these accusations and claim due diligence has weeded out candidates who may not be suitable to stand for parliament.

Other observers note that there has always been a factional element to selections and that this was the case under former leaders, including Jeremy Corbyn and Tony Blair.

A Labour insider sympathetic to Starmer’s project denied that unionists weren’t making shortlists and suggested the left valued the backing of some unions more highly than others.

“Starmer is completely within his rights to shape the parliamentary party in his image”, they added.

The question on the unions’ mind is whether there is any space for them in Starmer’s vision.

Playing the game

The rapid and brutal downfall of Truss as prime minister shows how a party’s fortunes can be determined by how successfully they keep warring tribes together.

Perhaps Starmer’s predicament was best summarised by RMT firebrand Mick Lynch, who acknowledged that Starmer had “a game to play”.

“He’s got the the right wing media and the critics in society who want him to trip over,” he told HuffPost UK.

“His main ambition, I’m assuming, is to win power for his party. When he’s done that, we will be advising him and suggesting what he should do about public transport, what he should do about pay, what he should do about the anti-trade union laws and rebalancing our society.

“But of course it’s all academic if he doesn’t win. He’s got his job to do and I’ve got mine to do, and we respect each other on that basis.”

Starmer now has to figure out how to please everyone — the most impossible task in politics — before he even sets foot in No.10.


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