The Labour leadership’s reaction to Thursday’s strike action is incoherent

by Atul Hatwal

Can you hear it? Those creaks and squeaks disrupting the heavy, doleful silence. That’s the sound of people squirming,  uncomfortably in their chairs. And its emanating from the upper echelons of the Labour party.

The cause is what’s happening on Thursday: industrial action on a scale rarely seen. Heallth workers, teachers, local government employees, fire fighters, university staff, civil servants and rail workers are among the groups that will strike.

Their reasons are understandable: real terms pay cuts, deteriorating pensions provision and redundancies. If the unions didn’t strike in these circumstances, there really would be little point to them. They are accountable to their members and their members are mad as hell.

What is less understandable is the reaction of the Labour leadership. There seems to be no collective line to take.

Tristram Hunt was on Marr on Sunday giving his particular rendition of the Sound of Silence. He neither opposed nor supported the teachers’ strike action, casting himself as a rather odd, impotent observer of events. Certainly for someone who aspires to be the secretary of state for education.

Then there was Owen Smith yesterday on the Daily Politics, initially trying to stick to the no-line-to-take-line-to-take but finding himself compelled, by the pressure of his own logic, to back the strikes as the interview unfolded.

In the 44 press releases issued by the Labour party over the past week, not one has addressed Thursday’s action and given an official Labour line.

Today Ed Miliband is giving a major speech on reforming education and inevitably will be asked about the strikes. What his response will be is almost impossible to predict. Will he go for the standard construction that he supports the right to strike, just not these particular strikes? Maybe.

Or will he back the strikes? Perhaps.

He might even try a “Hunt” and merely observe that there are strikes happening without giving an opinion. Who knows.

The reality is that decision that shouldn’t be difficult. Or require the endless agonising and tortuous internal debate that has been initiated.

As sympathetic as individual Labour members undoubtedly are to the causes for the strikes, the party should oppose this industrial action.

There are the obvious tactical benefits to this approach – it closes down a Tory line of attack on Labour as in the pocket of the unions – but above all else, there is a fundamental policy reason.

Labour’s public spending policy is based on a commitment to stick to the Tories day to day spending plans and maintain the public sector pay freeze.

To back the strikes, and support a loosening of pay restraint, is to oppose Labour’s own economic policy.

That Tristram Hunt and Owen Smith do not seem to realise this is disturbing.

That there seems to be no defence or even affirmation of Labour’s public spending stance from Ed Balls or the party, in the face of a this challenge from the unions, is even more worrying.

When the party won’t even publicly defend the centre-piece of its public spending plans, and be honest with its closest allies in the union movement, is it any wonder that the public have doubts about Labour on the economy?

Atul Hatwal is editor of Uncut

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6 Responses to “The Labour leadership’s reaction to Thursday’s strike action is incoherent”

  1. BenM says:

    Yes, Labour has a problem with its economic policy.

    Apeing the Tories disastrous austerity plan is the problem.

    My guess is Labour will squeak in, hold an emergency budget within 12 months and sweep Osborne’s pisspoor legacy into the bin.

    There will be howls of outrage from the Right, but with a fixed 5 year term Labour would be mad NOT to do this.

    Then proper growth and recovery will return and the Tories will disappear up their own rear ends just like the GOP have done in the US making themselves unelectable for a generation.

  2. paul barker says:

    Theres a more fundamental reason to oppose the strikes, they are, in effect a General Strike, a Political Strike against the policies of the Elected Government. If Labour are a Democratic Party they should oppose Thursdays action on those grounds as well.
    In fact the silence of the Labour Leadership is hardly surprising, its hard to attack the Union Leaderships & then ask them for money.

  3. Robin Thorpe says:

    Your logic is spot on here; I support the strike but I also agree that Labour’s policies must be consistent.
    I do, however, also think that Labour should not shy away from supporting the unions (where it is consistent with economic policy). Being attached to a democratically organised union of working people is preferable to being in the pocket of a handful of multi-millionaires.
    I have said before that I thought it was right for short-term commitments to be in line with the coalition spending plans, as changes inevitably produce disturbance to business cycles, but that doesn’t prevent Labour from saying that long-term they would seek to ameliorate the concerns of public sector-workers, e.g. future pay increases would be above inflation to restore the earning power that was lost through the recession. Pensions is another example of this. Labour can support public sector pay restraint but still agree with the union stance on pensions.

  4. Tafia says:

    One day strikes achieve the square root of f-all.

  5. LeftIsForward says:

    The fact that Labour supports the pay freeze and austerity policies shows that the current leadership are on the wrong side of history – and public opinion. It seems that Labour are moving ever-further from The Left, that the Blair years were not a mere aberration, and that true progressives must seek a political trajectory outside the party. Possibly outside traditional party politics altogether.

    The strikers are on the right side of history – people power usually is. The first stirrings of general, cross-economy strike action are a strong signal of progress. One day of action is enough to show the potential of unity, and usher further cooperation in future. It also sets down a marker to any pro-austerity or otherwise antiprogressive government – whether Coalition now, or Tory or Labour in the future. A whole series of general strikes may be enough to cripple or bring down a government of the future – 1926 is a marker but 1968 is the hope. If the current Labour leadership thinks they can bring crushing pain and further cuts to workers and vulnerable service users, they are wrong and they will be proven wrong. Popular direct action is worth more than any political or ideological screed, and the screed of neo-liberalism that all three main parties have embraced is worth nothing at all.

    BenM – if you think that Labour are, upon reelection, going to change their spots, hold an emergency budget and reverse their entire current economic agenda – WHY? What kind of blind faith are you exhibiting in them? Parties which have won a majority rarely double-back so immediately. They might when the next election is looming, but why would they do so just after winning one? It seems odd that when someone looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and jumps up and down shouting that they are indeed a duck, you conjecture that so long as we help them win an election it’ll all turn out fine, since it’ll transpire they were a moose all along just that neither we nor they themselves had noticed. If your sympathies really lie with the Left, then you should be campaigning hard for Left action within the Labour Party, and the reversal of its course for the past 20 years. Alternatively, you should be campaigning for progressive alternatives to Labour. Campaigning for an unreformed Labour party to win the next election, in the slim hope that their tender consciences will suddenly be pricked and they will immediately violate their campaign position, is madness.

  6. Landless Peasant says:

    Labour have well & truly lost the plot. Miliband is hopeless. He won’t support the Unions in strike action, and he won’t abolish Benefit Sanctions. I’m voting Green.

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