10 February 2020

As Starmer strides forward, Long-Bailey is panicking

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To judge by Constituency Labour Party nominations, Keir Starmer is storming his way to the Labour leadership. Last week the frontrunner even secured the nomination of Islington North CLP – a remarkable win given it is Jeremy Corbyn’s constituency. So far Starmer is well out in front, with 280 nomintions to just 131 for his Corbynite rival, Rebecca Long-Bailey.

Nevertheless, with many weeks still to go in the campaign and a Corbynista-dominated selectorate, there is still everything to play for.

But the Long-Bailey camp appears to already be panicking. With reports of internal discontent over a lacklustre, uninspiring campaign, her team seem to have reached for a tactic straight out of the failed Corbyn handbook – rushing out policy announcements on the hoof.

Some of these merit more attention than others. Take Long-Bailey’s announcement last week that she wanted to end the “24/7 culture” where workers are expected to answer work emails in their personal time – a proposal that predictably incurred the wrath of some free marketeers. The Spectator’s Kate Andrews argued that “Brits are working fewer hours than the average for the developed world” – implying that the proposals are unnecessary.

Whether one agrees with Long-Bailey’s proposals or not, this is a bit of a non-sequitur. The point about out of hours work is that it’s often unpaid and not clocked as official working hours. This is a big part of the problem: the extra work when an employee is expected to jump on a call or answer emails is not remunerated but is increasingly seen as part of the job. The left has always advocated limits to the working day; this is merely the same policy updated for the digital age. Indeed, whatever the fate of Long-Bailey’s campaign, I suspect the “right to disconnect” will be a tenet of mainstream social democracy in the coming years.

A policy that sounds altogether more radical is Long-Bailey’s plan to “back workers in every dispute and strike”. Hammering home the point, she told a rally in Sheffield that the next leader must be “as comfortable on the picket line as at the despatch box”.

It’s worth noting that industrial action in Britain is at a record low. In 2017 the number of workers who went on strike in Britain was at its lowest level since Queen Victoria was on the throne. In this context, Long-Bailey’s comments should be seen for what they are: mood-music for the Labour left rather than anything particularly substantive. They are also a sign that, in the face of Starmer’s seemingly inexorable run for the leadership, the Corbynites are retreating into the hard left’s comfort zone.

There’s no pleasing some people though, and I’ve already seen comments on social media from leftwingers complaining that Long-Bailey’s proposals do not go far enough. She’s made no commitment to repeal the anti-strike laws introduced under Margaret Thatcher, perhaps because even committed Corbynistas can see the potential electoral damage that advocating flying pickets could do.

More interesting, perhaps, is speculation as to what Starmer’s position on strikes might be if he wins the leadership. It was noteworthy that one of his first campaign videos highlighted how he had provided free legal advice to striking workers in the 1980s. Starmer has also previously condemned the Trade Union Bill, which allows employers to hire strike-breaking agency staff, as “pure ideology” designed to “to strike simply at the heart of trade unionism and to extinguish the ability to take collective action,” Starmer said.

Yet, as with Corbyn himself, Starmer’s position on repealing existing strike laws remains ambiguous. This matters much more than publicly expressing ‘solidarity’ with individual strikes, a gesture that goes down well with the section of the left that prioritises hashtags and political posturing over electoral strategy.

Given the rise in precarious work, decline in trade union membership and record low levels of industrial action, neither Starmer’s comments nor Long-Bailey’s proposals are especially radical. Perhaps this says less about either of them than it does about the make-up of the contemporary Labour Party. To a middle-class party more concerned with identity issues and cultural signalling, trade union rights are not where a leadership election will be won or lost.

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James Bloodworth is a journalist and author of 'Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-Wage Britain'