Voices: Is Keir Starmer in the pocket of the trade unions – and do voters care?

The Conservatives think that they have a winning argument. They produced an image this week of Keir Starmer in Mick Lynch’s jacket pocket, with the message: “Labour voted for their union paymasters: we know who’s really running the show.”

Pedantically, it makes no sense. The RMT union – of which Lynch is the general secretary – is not affiliated to the Labour Party: it broke the link under Lynch’s predecessor, Bob Crow, who called himself a communist. The Royal College of Nursing, the other union most prominently involved in this winter’s wave of strikes, is also not affiliated to the Labour Party for the opposite reason: that it stays out of politics.

Yet the Conservatives’ market research tells them that “Labour in hock to the unions” is an effective message. So much so that they are prepared to use the phrase “union paymasters” when it is untrue. It is true about Aslef, the CWU, GMB and Unison; but Lynch is on TV all the time, while no one knows what the other union general secretaries look like (Mick Whelan, Dave Ward, Gary Smith and Christina McAnea, respectively).

Either that or the Conservatives are so desperate for any message that they can use against a Labour Party that, armadillo-like, offers fewer and fewer obvious targets. At least the union link is enough to make a few doubters hesitate about voting Labour; it reinforces the Conservative core vote; and the image of the Labour leader in somebody’s pocket seemed to work before.

Snooty political scientists, with their regression analyses and difference-in-difference models, didn’t think putting Ed Miliband in Nicola Sturgeon’s top pocket had any effect on the 2015 election, but earthier types in Tory HQ thought they had scored a direct hit.

So “union paymasters” it is, and at Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday, Laura Farris, the Conservative MP, took the debate up a level. Did Rishi Sunak think, she asked, that “the former Labour prime minister Tony Blair had a point when he said last year that the ‘big defect’ at the birth of the Labour Party was its ties to organised labour?”

As a Professor of Blair Studies, I recognised the quotation: it was what Blair had said last year when he was asked questions by our students at King’s College London, where I teach a course on the Blair government with Dr Michelle Clement and Professor Jon Davis. Blair surveyed the history of the party: “Unfortunately, if you look back on, what, 120 years of Labour’s existence, we’ve been in power for less than a third, roughly a quarter, of that time. And half of it was New Labour, and there are parts of the Labour Party that are not too keen on remembering that part.

“So you can’t say Labour’s been a successful political project, really. Because if you take the 100 years before that, the Liberal party – which was then the alternative to the Conservatives – I think they were roughly equal in the time they spent in government.”

For someone who was so resolutely future-facing as Labour leader – his main interest in the party’s history was to erase Clause IV of its constitution – he also has a well-informed view of the origins of the party. I had heard him speak before of the tragedy of the divided traditions of Liberalism and labourism, a view associated with Roy Jenkins, the reforming Labour home secretary and founder of the Social Democratic Party.

But this time, Blair went further: “Personally, I think the big defect at the birth of Labour was to be tied to organised labour rather than to be broadly progressive. The separation of that liberal tradition of progressive politics and the Labour tradition is the thing I tried to cure in New Labour, but after I left people went back to the traditional roots of Labour, which I think was – and is – a mistake.”

Blair’s thesis is that this link to the trade union movement affects the way people see the Labour Party in a fundamental way. His is a sophisticated version of the crude Tory argument: the view that trade unions are an interest group, and that if there is a conflict between the national interest and the sectional interest of the unions, a significant number of voters fear that a Labour government will side with the unions.

Blair’s view reflects the debates that surrounded the forming of the Labour Representation Committee (LRC) in 1900, and the formation in the Commons of a “Labour Party” of 29 MPs after the 1906 election. The new party was a compromise between representing trade unions in parliament, representing the working class more generally, and representing socialism. But the structure of the LRC, of delegates from unions and other affiliates, ensured that the unions would dominate the party’s organisation.

That structural tie persists to this day. Despite changes made by John Smith and Blair, the unions still hold 50 per cent of the vote at Labour’s annual conference, supposedly the party’s sovereign body. For most of Labour’s history, block votes wielded by pragmatic union leaders protected the parliamentary party from the enthusiasms of grassroots members.

Indeed, Starmer even deployed the union block vote at the conference before last to vote down a motion in favour of proportional representation (at last year’s conference two unions switched and the motion was carried, so Starmer retreated to the next ditch, which was to ignore it).

However, I disagree with Jenkins’s argument that the founding of the Labour Party marked a permanent breach with Liberalism. The two parties were in electoral competition in the first half of the 20th century, but Ramsay MacDonald – Labour’s early leader – saw his party as a continuation of Liberalism rather than an alternative to it. Socialism would not be brought about by sudden change or revolution, MacDonald believed; it would be “the stage which follows Liberalism”, and it “retains everything of value in Liberalism by virtue of its being the hereditary heir of Liberalism” (quoted in Vernon Bogdanor’s superb The Strange Survival of Liberal Britain, published in October).

Yet the structural link, the block votes and the money, could still be a drag on Labour’s attempt to widen its appeal. There is not much evidence for it yet, with most voters supporting the nurses, ambulance workers and teachers strikes, and Labour 20 points ahead in the opinion polls. The relative unpopularity of strikes by rail workers and civil servants does not seem to translate into Starmer being blamed for them.

Public opinion about the politics of strikes changes as the situation changes. In 1974, Ted Heath fought an election on the issue of whether the unions should “hold the country to ransom”. Opinion on that question turned out to be evenly divided: enough people didn’t mind being held to ransom and thought Harold Wilson would do a better job of managing industrial relations.

Five years later, in the winter of discontent, the Labour government had failed to manage the unions and the voters gave Margaret Thatcher a mandate to curb their powers. Today, though, we seem to be more in a 1974 situation than a 1979 one.

Starmer’s line that “ministers should get round the table and sort it out” proved sufficiently popular that the government abandoned its early insistence that it was not for them to interfere; that only management (even in the public sector) should negotiate with the unions. Opinion polls suggest that voters overwhelmingly think that a Labour government would handle the problem of strikes better than the Tories. If Starmer is in Lynch’s pocket, most voters seem to think that this means that the two of them could reach a sensible agreement.

Maybe the image will prompt a small number of people to hesitate in the polling booth and hold back from voting Labour for fear that the interests of some groups of workers would be privileged by a Starmer government; maybe it will encourage some Tory voters to turn out rather than to stay at home.

But when Nadhim Zahawi, the Conservative Party chair, says “We know who’s really running the show,” the danger for him is that the voters will agree: that the Tories are running the show very badly, and that Starmer and his union friends could not do a worse job.