Keir Starmer’s Pro-Business Stance Will Make Labour Unelectable

Keir Starmer has rebranded Labour as a pro-business party. This stance has caused it to hemorrhage millions in union funding and alienate working-class voters.

Labour leader Kier Starmer in Huddersfield, England, March 16, 2022. (Ian Forsyth / Getty Images)

Last month, Unite union leader Sharon Graham and Labour Party leader Keir Starmer found themselves in a war of words. The spat was a consequence of Coventry’s Labour-led city council failing to acquiesce to the demands of striking workers. In defense of truck drivers fighting for improved pay, Graham decried the council leadership’s actions in the ongoing strike, labeling them “incompetent.” Unite has accused Coventry Labour of ignoring the plight of workers employed by the local authority by failing to attend negotiation meetings and distributing anti-strike leaflets displaying false information about the strikers’ pay.

Labour’s actions in Coventry are indefensible. The rightward turn led by Starmer is not, however, new. It is a return to a conservative tradition that was dominant throughout much of the pre-Corbyn years.

Labour Against Labor

In a public excoriation, Graham threatened to slash donations to Labour following the Coventry row, which would have considerable consequences for the party financially because Unite has long been its leading donor. The union’s former general secretary Len McCluskey donated a whopping £3m to Jeremy Corbyn’s election war chest in 2019, following Corbyn’s vow to strengthen trade union power if elected as prime minister.

Graham is clearly unimpressed with Starmer’s about-face. His office has, however, doubled down by issuing a response that they would not take threats from a union leader. In an interview for the Guardian on the heels of her election victory last summer, Graham already set out a distance from Labour with remarks that “putting all our eggs in the Westminster basket will not deliver.” Her reproach is not an anomaly, as several other unions are following suit as Starmer’s hostility to their cause becomes more evident.

Amid the intense annual Labour conference last September, where all factions of the party descended on Brighton’s seafront, a trade union with a century-old affiliation to Labour decided to part ways with its political partner. The Bakers, Food and Allied Workers’ Union (BFAWU) announced their disaffiliation and blamed Labour for moving away “from the aims and hopes of working-class organisations,” and that factional warfare led by the leadership was overshadowing crucial issues facing its members.

Keeping with the theme, railway union Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen (ASLEF) could vote to sever its long-standing link with Labour at the organization’s upcoming conference. Its executive committee is rumored to be 5-3 in favor of disaffiliation, which would spark a notorious breakaway from Starmerism.

Starmer seeks to enact a similar agenda to former party leaders Tony Blair and Neil Kinnock. This project is one which considerably weakens the influence of trade unions within Labour’s party machinery. Kinnock and Blair’s reforms of trade union affiliation was an attempt to destroy the Left within the Labour Party by conducting what was effectively a civil war. Its sole purpose was rebranding of the party to make it less hostile to the interests of business.

Colleagues not Comrades

During a dinner between union leaders and then prime minister Blair in 2001, Downing Street faced a testy exchange with its industrial counterparts when it refused to budge on its plans to water down public services to generate greater private investment. Blair was also the leader who sapped the voting powers of trade union delegates at the party’s annual conference, reducing their influence from 80 percent to 50 percent, on par with local constituency parties. It was under Blair, too, that the party’s members traded in “comrade” for “friends” or “colleagues” as a term that addresses fellows within the party or across the globe.

Blair’s modernizing reforms replicated those of his predecessor, Kinnock, who issued a scathing rebuke of striking unions throughout the ’80s. There was certainly no love lost between Kinnock and the National Union of Mineworkers’ secretary, Arthur Scargill, during the 1984–85 miners’ strike. Reflecting on the large-scale industrial dispute, Kinnock criticized Scargill’s “suicidal vanity” which he felt handed Margaret Thatcher’s government a “gift” legitimizing her crackdown on unions.

At the 1985 party conference, Kinnock chastised his predecessor Michael Foot and his left-wing acolytes, labeling them “outdated” and a “grotesque chaos” within the rank and file. A policy initiated by Kinnock was used by his successors Blair and the late John Smith which eviscerated the influence of trade union blocs and advocated for the one member, one vote system (OMOV). This shift to direct participation by members, under the guise of further democratization of party politics, was used to silence the Left.

A clear line connects Starmer’s politics and those of his right-wing predecessors. His empty platitudes throughout HeartUnions week, where he urged workers to join trade unions for their own protection, is in direct contrast with his actions. Workers across the UK have faced an unprecedented amount of pressure throughout a raging public health pandemic, soaring inflation and a cost-of-living crisis that is set to devalue stagnant wages.

During the pandemic, whilst teachers worked tirelessly to get children back into school under calamitous guidance from the government, Starmer opposed all talk of strike action. Purportedly on the side of workers, Labour’s leader refused to side with teachers and condemn the government’s back-to-school measures.

Back to Basics

If Starmer wishes for the party to succeed with him as leader, he should reflect on its foundations for inspiration. The Independent Labour Party, formed by trade unionists and disgruntled Liberals as a platform for the working class, exposed working-class disillusionment with mainstream political parties. The party’s founding leader, Keir Hardie, used his credentials establishing a workers’ union on the coalfields to lead the party in the Commons. This pro-labor position paid dividends: between 1900 and 1906 Labour increased its seats in Parliament from two to twenty-six.

Trade unions have given large financial incentives to Labour over the years, and in return they want their voices to be represented in Westminster. Labour was formerly a party solely for trade unions, and individual members were not admitted until a reworking of the rules in 1918. This was part of a model of democracy that recognized that workers were powerful when they could organize themselves through strong institutions that had their interests at heart.

Like Blair, who disparagingly mocked his party’s historic relationship to unions when he said New Labour’s approach was one of “fairness not favors,” Starmer is similarly turning his back on the movement which gives his party its name. The Labour leader’s stance has thus far lost the party £1.6 million in trade union contributions. Unite and the Bakers union being the most high-profile unions to reduce their contributions to the party.

Already in financial straits with looming legal costs, the party can scarcely afford to lose any more campaign resources. Compounding this crisis is a loss of taxpayer funds and a reduction in Labour’s membership following Corbyn’s departure. A perfect storm is brewing, but Starmer and the Labour right seem completely unaware.

In 2021, trade union membership rose for the fourth year in a row — an influx of 228,000 public sector workers, amounting to 4 million in total. According to a 2016 poll on British social attitudes, the majority of respondents identified as working-class. These workers are currently relying solely on the suppressed bargaining power of unions to be heard.

Recently, shadow business secretary Jonathan Reynolds outlined how Labour is now a “pro-business party,” a cliche of the Right which ignores the dilemma facing workers across the country. If Starmer does not reverse the course of his predecessors and offer support to striking workers and trade unions, it could eviscerate his party’s working-class appeal for generations. Not only are Labour’s leaders’ decisions wrong, they’re reckless and irresponsible.