Primary school workers have a lesson for Keir Starmer. While they were shutting down unsafe workplaces and forcing Boris Johnson into yet another damning U-turn he was cowering behind the government.
As school workers’ plans for action grew in a groundswell over the weekend, Starmer and his tepid shadow education ministers refused to back them.
Starmer said on Sunday he didn’t want to “add to the chaos that would be caused by having all schools closed”.
Yet as support for workers grew, it wasn’t long before he was pushed to admit that “inevitably more schools will have to close”.
That evening Starmer also demanded that Johnson implement a new national lockdown within the next 24 hours.
He was very careful not to call for anything more than the Tories were already planning—he just wanted them to do it sooner.
It let him appear to oppose the Tories for all of a day. When Johnson went ahead and called the new lockdown on Monday, all Starmer could do was cheerlead for him. When Starmer was asked if there was anything more he would demand from the Tories’ lockdown he said no.
That means Labour won’t call for non-essential workplaces such as construction sites to close. It won’t call for the full support to make sure people can afford to be furloughed or self-isolate. It won’t call for bans on all evictions.
Instead—at a moment of huge catastrophe caused by the Tories’ failures—Starmer said the main thing was support for the government.
“Whatever our criticisms and challenges of the government we’ve all got to pull together now,” he said.
Starmer is teaching us a lesson about Labour. For the Labour Party, being seen to be “responsible” is more important than anything else.
That doesn’t mean being responsible for protecting the lives of the working class people it claims to represent. It means making sure not to back anything it knows would upset the bosses, big business or the right wing billionaire-owned media.
This constant refusal to challenge the Tories properly has caused anger among Labour’s members.
But there’s a lesson for union leaders too. It’s not good enough for them to mouth support for other workers taking action while their own members are being sent to risk their lives at work.
If union leaders really want to oppose the Tories, they should follow the school workers’ example and call on their members to stay away from workplaces.
The biggest lesson is that it’s workers’ action—not the Labour Party—than can stop the Tory government from killing many more people.
We need to generalise the experience from this week and build action to force Johnson out.