“These strikes are wrong at a time when negotiations are going on…”
That was the then-Labour leader Ed Miliband's response to a journalist's question about teachers’ strikes in 2011. It was also his response to the next four questions. Miliband just rephrased exactly the same answer over and over again, like some kind of soft-left Alexa stuck in an endless loop. That soundbite sums up the relationship of the pre-Corbyn Labour party to strike action.
Because despite being the party funded and supported by the trade unions, the Labour party has frequently not supported workers when they take on their bosses. The 1945-1951 Labour government, which set up the NHS, also used the army to break strikes on 18 different occasions.
But the election of Corbyn has put that attitude into question. A struggle has broken out within the party over its relationship to strike action: between a left faction (with its base among the membership and leadership) that represents the interests of workers, and a right faction (with its base among councillors and MPs) that does not.
In 2016, Labour MPs to the right of the newly-elected Corbyn leadership prevented the party from officially backing the Junior Doctors strike. The Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell still visited a picket line anyway, though, and ever since Corbyn saw off Owen Smith’s leadership challenge later that year, the left of the party has been consolidating its control.
It’s now becoming relatively normal to see the Shadow Chancellor on a picket line – be it with British Airways cabin crew, university lecturers or cleaners at the Ministry of Justice. Last October, during the #FastFoodShutdown led by workers from across the service sector, McDonnell even sent a memo out to every Labour MP: if there is a picket line in your constituency, you have to go.
Support for strikes now seems to be the default position of the leadership – with the exception of those sticky situations where Labour councils are the bosses who workers are fighting back against.
In 2017, bin workers in Birmingham were on strike against the Labour-majority city council over a reorganisation of the service that would have threatened the pay and working conditions of 100 workers. After five months of on-and-off strike action, the council gave in – but not before they had tried to undermine the strikers by paying a bonus to workers who crossed picket lines. Now, bin workers are taking strike action again. As of 5AM on the 19th of February, Unite members walked out to start a ten-day strike – demanding that they, too, get paid a bonus equal to that paid to the workers who crossed picket lines in 2017.
Asif Mohammed, Unite’s regional chair and a Labour member, doesn’t think much of the council’s behaviour: "The way they have acted is beneath contempt. They’ve used Thatcher-era intimidation tactics to go to war with their own workers." Twenty-three of 67 Labour councillors have broken ranks to support the strike and condemn the council leadership. Again, the left and right within the party are at each other's throats.
Back on a national level, the ascendancy of the left within the party means more than just visiting picket lines. The 2017 Labour manifesto promised to repeal the 2016 Trade Union Act – a piece of legislation so profoundly undemocratic that academics labelled it "authoritarian". But the policy passed at party conference in 2018 goes further, to call for the repeal of all anti-trade union laws passed since Thatcher.
That would mean taking on the 1992 Trade Unions and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act, which summed up all of Thatcher’s attacks on trade unions in one neat law. So far, this hasn’t been a widely discussed Labour policy. But Lloyd Russell-Moyle, notorious mace-thief and Labour MP for East Brighton, argues that it needs to go: "There are some elements of it that will need to be totally repealed, and some that will need to be reformed to reflect the changed labour market."
For example, Russell-Moyle wants all workers in one workplace to be allowed to take solidarity strike action in support of one another, even if they have different employers. But he’s also keen on creating new rights that never existed before – like a right for trade unions to access workplaces in order to speak to workers. "This isn’t just about going back – we want a new trade union legislation that reflects the modern diversity of work relations."
Parts of the ascendent left have gone further than just backing small scale strikes over pay and conditions, and are planning to junk Tory trade union law. Laura Smith, Labour MP for Crewe and Nantwich, took to the stage at a Labour supporters rally in 2018 to call for a general strike to bring down the government, and was met with a standing ovation.
So, has the Labour party’s relationship to working class power in the workplace really changed?
Fundamentally, no one has changed their mind. Those who opposed strikes still oppose them, and those who supported them still support them. What has happened is that the left faction has increased its control over the party machinery.
Ever since Owen Smith’s attempt to topple Corbyn was defeated, a split has seemed inevitable. About a third of Labour MPs would never take part in implementing a socialist programme. The question was when, not if, they would pull the trigger.
The form of that split is now clear: The Independent Group, a private company, funded by god knows who, with no mass membership and no policies. The slow trickle of nonentities resigning from the party to join Chuka and the Blair Rich Project are precisely those MPs who have never been keen on workers taking back control of their lives.
As Jeremy Gilbert has argued, this split fundamentally represents a class distinction within the Labour party. The Independent Group represent the lobbyists, the bosses, the landlords and the political elite. "For the many, not the few" stuck in their throats – because, in the end, they represent the few.
The socialist mainstream of the Labour Party, on the other hand, represents the many. The workers, the unemployed, the students and all the other precarious in-betweens that make up our fragmented society.
These two factions have responded to strike action in a way that matches their class basis. It’s not rocket science.
For the socialists who now lead Labour, a strong working class movement outside of parliament plays a key role in their strategy. John McDonnell plans to transform the state from within, and for that to happen, elected representatives must be held accountable – which will surely involve industrial action.
If a Labour government tries to implement its programme, the ruling class will fight back. The primary social force a Labour government will have to back them up will be the working class. And the better organised and more experienced that working class, the bigger its potential power.
That’s why people like McDonnell and Russell-Moyle are so keen on supporting workers when they take action: because they want to help build a movement that’s both "in and against the state". Their entire political project rests on that movement springing to life sooner rather than later.