OPINION - Are these Labour’s strikes? No, but it needs a line to take

·3-min read
 (West End Final)
(West End Final)

Is Oliver Dowden, the Conservative Party chairman, right? Are these Labour’s strikes? The short answer is no. The Tories are in government, have been so for the last 12 years while the RMT isn’t even affiliated with the Labour Party, expelled as it was in 2004 for reasons you couldn’t possibly be interested in but I’ll link to here just in case.

The longer answer is also no, but it raises some interesting questions about the near future of British politics.

Industrial action has invariably proven tricky for Labour, both in its occasional spells in government and normal state of opposition. Voters rely on heuristics, not Fabian Society pamphlets. In short, Labour is good at spending money on the NHS but bad at running the economy. The Tories meanwhile are the opposite. The point is not that these are necessarily true, but they have a truth-y quality.

That is why many voters’ impulse reaction will be to assume that Labour supports the strikes. So if it doesn’t, it should really make that clear, and the strength of its case shouldn’t depend on which shadow minister is on camera.

Not least because, these aren’t going to be the last strikes facing Britain before the next election, given that it isn’t only RMT workers baulking at sub-inflation pay deals, but also teachers, nurses and civil servants right across the public sector.

For better or worse, we know what the Government’s position is: stay quiet about declining living standards and blame the Labour Party (this was only the most egregious example.) What is Labour’s?

The problem for the party isn’t that Keir Starmer is perceived to be dull. It is that on each of the biggest issues of the last two weeks – first migration, now strikes – he doesn’t have a coherent line to take. The last thing Labour needs is to publish a fully costed Green Paper let alone a Shadow Budget. Merely a coherent one-sentence answer, that even the most media unfriendly frontbencher can regurgitate.

Of course, none of this is easy. But a good place to start, as ever, is with Tony Blair’s forward to Philip Gould’s masterpiece The Unfinished RevolutionIn it, Blair distils the thought process and hard yards that take parties from opposition to government.

Questions include working out why you’re in opposition at all, what you really believe in (without falling into the trap of answering that with a thousand policy proposals), and when (as well as how) to inspire hope. There’s more, but it really is all there.

Blair writes of his conviction that oppositions lose “if they think the government doing badly is enough for them to win. For progressives, it usually isn’t.”

Having said all that, and speaking of leaning into your own brand weakness, the Government is now facing criticism for planning to reduce limits on bankers’ bonuses while simultaneously calling for wage restraint in the public sector in the middle of a cost of living crisis. Perhaps plodding opposition (and a decent mid-term poll lead) will be enough after all.

In the comment pages, Matthew d’Ancona says that the decision by the world’s swimming governing body to bar those who have experienced male puberty from elite competition is good news for fairness in sports, women’s rights and, “though this may seem less obvious, good news for trans people.”

While international curator and broadcaster Ellen Nash asks that we don’t cancel Russian artists for Vladimir Putin’s war.

And finally, my origin story for this article on the best cheesecakes in London available for delivery began last Thursday when I, alongside the rest of the newsroom, received an email requesting our help to taste test some desserts. Friends, enjoy the fruits of our labour.

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