Iain Macwhirter: Now it's Labour fighting like ferrets in a sack ... as neo-Blairism causes glee in the ranks of the SNP

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - JULY 25: Sir Keir Starmer, leader of the Labour Party delvers a keynote speech on the economy at The Spine Building on July 25, 2022 in Liverpool, England. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images).
LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - JULY 25: Sir Keir Starmer, leader of the Labour Party delvers a keynote speech on the economy at The Spine Building on July 25, 2022 in Liverpool, England. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images).

“He is a conman. He is not someone anyone can trust. He lies as a matter of course to secure power. He is not fit to be leader and not fit to be prime minister”.

That may sound like Angela Rayner attacking Boris. In fact, it is Owen Jones, the Labour-supporting Guardian columnist, last week attacking his leader Keir Starmer whom he supported as recently as 2020.

If you think the Tories are in a state following Boris Johnson’s defenestration, listen up because Labour is on the verge of civil war. #StarmerOut has been trending on Twitter where Labour activists spend much of their waking lives. The recent Forde report that revealed racism, factionalism and plotting by Labour HQ against Jeremy Corbyn has shocked ordinary Labour members.

This week’s infighting followed the sacking of the Labour frontbench spokesman Sam Tarry for the sin of attending an RMT picket line and talking out of turn to the media. Keir Starmer had ordered his frontbench team to avoid picket lines and not depart from the party line on strikes. Sir Keir said he sacked Mr Tarry, allegedly the boyfriend of his deputy Angela Rayner, because he was “making policy on the hoof”.

Making work pay

HIS hoofing concerned the most divisive issue in the Labour movement right now: pay. Mr Tarry had said that workers should get pay rises in line with inflation, which is not Labour policy though you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise.

Just about every Labour MP who gets near a microphone seems to support train drivers, teachers, BT engineers, and local government workers striking for inflation-matching pay rises.

Diane Abbott pointed out that Labour ministers like the late Shirley Williams spoke on picket lines in the 1970s. Anas Sarwar has ignored the rule about office-bearers not joining picket lines. Kevin Lindsay, the Scottish organiser of Aslef, has quit and called for Starmer to be forced out.

But the rift goes deeper than the Summer of Discontent. There is anger on the left of the party at what is regarded as betrayal of the party’s social-democratic agenda. Rachel Reeves, the Labour shadow chancellor, was allowed recently to “make policy on the hoof” by apparently ditching Labour’s commitment to nationalise rail and other utilities. Sir Keir had to step in and contradict her on rail at least. But Ms Reeves remained conspicuously unsacked.

That’s because she was putting across the message that the leadership wants, which is that Labour is opposed in principle to state ownership. Sir Keir is trying to do what Tony Blair did after he became Labour leader, making clear that Labour is no longer the party of high taxes, strikes and loss-making state monopolies.

Back in the 1990s it was called “eliminating the negatives” by the New Labour “modernisers”. The key moment was the 1994 Labour conference when Tony Blair announced the scrapping of Clause 4 of the party constitution, which committed a Labour government to public ownership of the “means of production, distribution and exchange”.

Winning card

NEW Labour’s next trick was the Pledge Card. Theoretically carried by every Labour MP, this card promised “no increases in income tax, low inflation and sound finances”, and became something of a standing joke in the party after John Prescott, mocked it. The original card probably helped Labour win the 1997 General Election.

Sir Keir issued his own 10-point pledge card in 2020, though MPs are very definitely not required to carry it. That’s because he has abandoned nearly all of it.

Gone is Sir Keir’s promise to “renationalise rail, energy, water and the Royal Mail” and stand “shoulder to shoulder with trades unions”. Also unpledged is the promise to “increase income tax for the top 5%”and “defend free movement” with the EU. Starmer told Andrew Marr on LBC that he would “never” try to rejoin the single market or the EU.

Sir Keir says that the “financial situation” has changed since 2020, which is true, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that every socialist-sounding pledge has to be discarded. After all, French president Emmanuel Macron is right now nationalising the energy utility EDF. Ruling out an accommodation with the EU single market seems an odd way of dealing with the vexed Northern Ireland protocol.

It is, above all, their leader’s approach to taxation that is causing anguish in Labour ranks. Last year, Mr Starmer opposed Boris Johnson’s original proposal to raise corporation tax though it’s not clear what Labour’s position is now on business taxes. Sir Keir also opposed the increase in National Insurance to pay for the NHS even though the Labour chancellor Gordon Brown did exactly the same in his 2002 Budget.

Like Rishi Sunak, Labour is calling for a cut in VAT on fuel. Indeed, it is hard to find a Tory tax cut that Labour doesn’t support. Keir Starmer has attacked the Tories for increasing tax 15 times since the election. Rachel Reeves says she has “no plans” to increase income tax rates.This raises awkward questions about how Labour would pay for its spending programmes: £28 billion a year on climate change, restoring the £20 cut to Universal Credit, reversing the National Insurance tax hike, abolishing tuition fees (another Starmer pledge), spending more on defence and the NHS, and awarding generous pay deals to its client public-sector unions.

SNP glee

ALL this neo-Blairism is causing glee in the ranks of the SNP. But Starmer’s dance of the seven policy veils may not be as much of a boost to the independence campaign as nationalists hope. Unlike the left, who are mainly interested in ideological purity, the Labour leader is single-minded about gaining power.

RMT’s Mick Lynch might be feted on social media, but Starmer’s people think that is largely because no-one uses rail much since the pandemic. Many work from home and 60% of voters commute by car.

Starmer is certainly not convinced that another Winter of Discontent would benefit Labour during a cost-of-living crisis. Nor does he think that British voters support illegal immigration, nationalisation or increases in welfare benefits.

Labour has calculated that middle earners are the ones who will be in revolt this winter after a historic reduction in their living standards. Most private sector workers can’t strike and may feel that public sector workers, and even people on benefits with the £1,200 grant, are getting a better deal than they are.

White Van Man, along with many self-employed tradespeople, will struggle to find work at all as Britain plunges into recession. There may be little support for climate activists blocking motorways or for striking teachers closing schools.

At any rate, Starmer is unapologetic about ditching his pledges and cares little about anger on the left. He has decided that most voters regard Twitter as a playground for trans activists and other extremists.

The opinion polls suggest he will likely be the UK’s next prime minister after the expected Liz Truss interregnum. That’s not good news for Nicola Sturgeon as she tries to turn the next General Election into a referendum on independence. Many Scottish voters may regard a Labour victory, even under Starmer, as something worth voting for.