“Where Labour’s position is stuck in shades of technocratic grey, the wider labour movement is going through a revitalisation – bursting with energy and assertiveness. Trade unions are organising an upswing in industrial action in response to the crunch their members are facing.”
By Simon Fletcher
Labour today put growth – indeed, “growth, growth and growth” – at the centre of its pitch into the next election. But there is a problem. Labour’s emphasis on the need for future growth is all-too-often counterposed to the needs of working people in the present who need a pay rise.
Last week for example, ahead of Keir Starmer’s speech today, Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves “stopped short of backing a higher salary boost for millions of nurses, teachers, troops and police,” as the Mirror put it. “I’d like them to get a pay rise”, Rachel Reeves told the Mirror, but added: “unless you grow the economy, it is not possible to improve living standards and have the money to invest in public services.”
It is simply not the case that one of the wealthiest countries on the planet does not have the resources to pay its workforce better now. It can and it should. The case for growth under a future Labour government ought not to stand as an excuse to avoid backing working people when they request a pay rise in the here-and-now. The public are facing an unprecedented collapse in their living standards. One of the ways they will judge politicians is on who stands by them at this time.
As on the wages crisis, so it is with public ownership. Rachel Reeves told the BBC this morning that Labour would not go into the next election promising to take rail, energy or water companies back under public ownership. “Within our fiscal rules, to be spending billions of pounds on nationalising things, that just doesn’t stack up against our fiscal rules,” she told the Today programme. In turn these remarks led to a scramble for clarity over Labour’s position on rail, given the very clear position in favour of public ownership from the shadow transport secretary, Lou Haigh.
All of this is particularly unfortunate terrain to enter into on the morning that the TUC published an extremely reasonable case for public ownership of the energy companies, and in a week when railway workers will once again take industrial action. In both cases privatisation has been an obstacle to good administration of what are in reality natural monopolies.
Where Labour’s position is stuck in shades of technocratic grey, the wider labour movement is going through a revitalisation – bursting with energy and assertiveness. Trade unions are organising an upswing in industrial action in response to the crunch their members are facing. Their leaders are cutting through decades of arguments to make persuasive points about the British economy’s deep problems. All of that is carried out on mainstream media platforms and shared across social media.
A number of trade union leaders now emphasise that unions cannot wait for or rely on political parties and that unions have to do things for and amongst themselves.
The Labour leader’s speech contains some welcome arguments – such as reiterating Labour’s position on green investment, and continuing to refer to the New Deal for Working People on employment standards.
But Labour is going to come under mounting pressure as the collapse in living standards deepens in the autumn. Growth under the next Labour government is no reason not to get squarely behind those faced with pay cuts under a Tory government. The present position is already bumping up against the real-life experience of millions of workers. It will face more strain as the year unfolds.
- This article was originally published by Simon Fletcher’s Modern Left on July 25, 2022.
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