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Why won’t Labour back strikes?

This article is over 1 years, 5 months old
It may come as a surprise that a party that claims to back workers has called for MPs to avoid rail pickets. But Labour, Nick Clark, writes, has usually opposed strikes
Issue 2811

Independent Labour Party leader, Keir Hardie speaking at Trafalgar Square, 1908

It’s shocking—but perhaps not surprising—to many that the Labour Party tried to ban its senior politicians from supporting last week’s rail strike. Perhaps even more ­surprising still is the revolt among Labour politicians after some of them defied leader Keir Starmer and joined picket lines anyway.

Even members of Starmer’s shadow cabinet—his leading politicians—threatened revolt. One said, anonymously, it would be “outrageous” for Starmer to discipline MPs for joining picket lines. Another said it was “dumb” to try and stop them going in the first place.

And Starmer’s former adviser Simon Fletcher said, “There is very widespread support for the trade union in this dispute and there would be a huge explosion if there was disciplinary action ­threatened against people,” he said.

Yet for Starmer, being seen not to support the strike was a matter of principle—and he didn’t want to back down. “That’s how we’ll prove ­ourselves as a serious ­operation, a serious government in ­waiting, and is how we’ll win elections,” said the usual, unnamed Labour source.

And that’s the row in a nutshell. Even some of Labour’s most “moderate” MPs occasionally feel uncomfortable criticising striking workers. Labour’s trade union links and claim to represent the working class means they know they need to keep workers and trade union leaders on side. 

And sometimes even Labour leaders will deem it necessary to make an appearance on the pickets. Yet at the same time, being a “serious government in ­waiting” means rejecting the disruption of strikes and the politics of class struggle. 

That contradiction has been at the heart of the Labour Party ever since it began. You might easily remember how in 2011, Labour’s then leader Ed Miliband denounced a mass public sector strike with the robotic mantra “these strikes are wrong.”

But what of how, during the great 1984-85 Miners’ Strike, Labour failed to stand fully with the strikers? Instead, its leader Neil Kinnock joined in right wing demands that the miners hold a ballot intended to undermine the strike.

Or how the party shunned the campaign to release and get justice for the Shrewsbury Pickets—jailed for their role in a construction strike? None of these are anomalies. An aversion to strikes is built into Labour’s very foundations. 

Even Labour’s “socialist” predecessor, the Independent Labour Party (ILP), rejected class struggle, stressing the common interest of bosses and workers. ILP leader Keir Hardie—hailed as the Labour Party’s founder—wrote that it was “a degradation of the socialist movement to drag it down to the level of a mere struggle for supremacy between two ­contending factions. We don’t want ‘class conscious’ ­socialists,” he said.

The trade union leaders of the TUC swung behind support for a Labour Party after a series of major defeats for strikes in the late 1890s. Hardie celebrated the “utter rout” of a strike of Scottish miners as “nevertheless a great victory for the Labour ­movement.” It had, he said, convinced many of the miners “to throw in their lot with the ILP.”

After more defeats, the ILP’s linked newspaper, Labour Leader, wrote, “In the end it may turn out the lesson was worth the cost. “It would be more in ­accordance with the traditional principles of English politics and common sense if the battle was transferred from the poverty stricken homes of the workers to the floor of the House of Commons.”

The ILP and union leaders founded the Labour Party in 1900. About a year later the ­government upheld a court ruling that outlawed ­picketing and forced unions to ­compensate bosses for strikes.

This, more than anything else, convinced union leaders to back the new party. As the TUC still says on its website today, “If the right to strike was ever to be preserved as an essential instrument of trade union policy, then the new principle embodied in the Taff Vale decision must be reversed by parliament.”

“If this was to be done, the trade unions must secure greater and more influential representation in parliament.” So the turn towards parliament marked a retreat from trade unionism and the idea that workers’ action could win.

In creating the Labour Party, the union leaders created a group of politicians for whom parliament came first. The Great Unrest of 1910-14 began ten years after Labour was founded. It saw strikes by three big battalions of the ­working class—the miners, the rail workers and the dockers, and mass demonstrations.

Labour leader Ramsay MacDonald was disturbed. “If we had been consulted first of all we should have advised the men to begin with Parliamentary action, both on the floor of the House of Commons, and in Ministers’ ­private rooms,” he wrote.

“Whilst the heroics ­outside are being indulged in, Parliamentary action of a ­general character is being ­paralysed and prejudiced.” It was a similar story a few years later in 1919, amid a great wave of radicalisation in the wake of the Russian Revolution. Labour’s leaders were desperate to put a stop to it.

Labour leader Arthur Henderson told parliament he “deplored” strikes. “I have done as much as any man alive to prevent strikes,” he reassured MPs. And again, during the General Strike of 1926—­probably the biggest test of Labour’s ­support for workers’ resistance—its leaders recoiled.

The year before, MacDonald had even despaired that a Tory government’s ­concession to a miners’ strike threat “increased the power and prestige” of people who thought action shouldn’t be confined to parliament.

During the strike itself, Labour conspired with union leaders to have it called off at the earliest opportunity. Then, once defeated, its leaders celebrated. As Labour MP Phillip Snowden said, “the lesson of the futility and foolishness of such a trial of strength.” 

That appeal—justice through the ballot box—is how Labour usually manages to square its hostility to strikes with its claim to represent workers. It supports their ­struggles, but only to contain them within acceptable, parliamentary channels.

Rather than Labour seeing that strikes can inflict a defeat on the government and the bosses driving this assault, the key thing for them is that both sides “get round the table.” Only Labour—in tune with the needs of business, but connected to union leaders—can “do the job properly” and stop strikes before things get out of hand.

That goal has often led Labour, and the union leaders who look to it as an alternative to strikes, to stifle militancy together.

Labour once again kept its distance from the great class battles of the early 1970s. But it did come up with the “social contract”—an ­agreement with union leaders to limit wage demands and hold off strikes.

In practice it meant that when Labour was elected in 1974, it imposed the worst attacks on workers since the 1930s.  And by 1978 some 25 ­percent of people in Britain lived below the official poverty line.

It ended in the Winter of Discontent—a series of angry, militant strikes that pitted workers against a Labour government. It wasn’t the first time that Labour tried to prove it could manage workers’ resistance. During the Second World War, the role of Clement Attlee’s Labour in the coalition ­government was to encourage workers not to strike.

After the war his government sent soldiers to break strikes more than 18 different times. And in 1966, a Harold Wilson Labour government used ­emergency powers to beat a ­seafarers’ strike over pay. 

Bosses and bankers had demanded Wilson’s government drive down wages in response to an economic crisis—and he responded by making an ­example of the seafarers. While the seafarers insisted their strike was for pay, Wilson declared it a “strike against the state, against the community” by “a tightly knit group of ­politically motivated men.”

It sounds noticeably similar to the way the Tories sometimes talk about the rail strikes. But the most urgent warning is how desire for “talks” quickly turns into hostility to workers’ strikes. And how, in the name of proving itself a “capable,” “responsible” government, it will use its pull on union ­leaders to bring them to a halt

That’s the nature of a party that’s always been more inclined to lead workers to defeat than see their struggles win.



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