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Labour shuns the strikers at its peril

Tom Fox on Milliband's condemnation of the public sector pension strikes.

July 4, 2011
5 min read

On Thursday, 750,000 workers went on strike. Tens of thousands marched across the UK’s major cities to show opposition to the government’s austerity drive, so many that assembly points were crammed and in some cities new venues needed to be found for the final speeches. Since the student protests of the winter, the left has steadily found a voice across the country and is developing an increasing and long awaited confidence.

Yet there was an unsurprising absence from the supporters of the strikes and protests: the Labour Party. The party founded to represent the working class, and funded by trade unions for this purpose, has continued with the aggressive union bashing enshrined in principle by Blair and his entourage in 1994. Anyone hoping for any different from “Red Ed” must have finally had those illusions dispersed last week, when he denounced striking workers as wrong.

The complete lack of substance in Miliband and the party’s position was revealed by the embarrassing and illuminating interview in which he repeated his flimsy opposition to the strikes like a schoolboy who has learned something by rote, but does not understand it. He demonstrated the continuation of one of New Labour’s most unedifying traits: the carefully choreographed absence of both meaning and principle.

Yet more than this, it represents a looming disaster for his leadership and his party. According to a YouGov poll, 70% of Labour supporters expressed their backing for the strike. In the same poll, 39% of the population supported the walkout, while a ComRes poll found that 48% of people supported the strikes. Although still a divisive issue, the population was far more supportive of strikes, protests and unions than most of the media allowed.

This is reflected in the fury heaped on Miliband himself. The response to those 70% of Labour supporters who disagreed with him was little more than a note, with an argument not so much non-compelling as non-existent. The disrespect for those on strike and their supporters is revealed in his complete inability and unwillingness to build a case against the strikes. The result, unsurprisingly, was a barrage of comments from Labour Party members and supporters sick of his being a “spineless jerk”.

Fittingly, on the day after the broad-left began to reassert itself Miliband’s pet project, Blue Labour, reared its head. On Friday John Cruddas and Jonathan Rutherford wrote an article hazily expounding their desire for a “new patriotism”, the subtext being a patriotism defined not as multicultural but instead specific to the white working class. In their eyes, the working class is a caricature obsessed solely with race, immigration and crime, “abandoned to globalisation” and fearing overwhelming social change. They want a return to the stability and safety of communities that foster “social order, family life and common decency”. The “people” are right wing, and therefore so must the left.

Yet if Labour is out of touch, the core of Blue Labour’s critique, it is not with an automatic conservatism or anti-immigrant sentiment, but instead a desire for progress and increasing anger at the unjust distribution of both wealth and political power in this country. The building momentum against the cuts underlines the invention that we are an inherently conservative and docile country, just as the student protests proved the lie that the youth were stupid and apolitical. On top of the Labour supporters and general public supportive of the strikes, 50% of northerners, the homeland of Blue Labour’s fictitious notion of the working class, agreed that those walking out were right. All of this makes it seem surreal that Miliband is shunning the left in favour of the right.

The problem is not that Labour is not “Blue” enough, but that it is far too blue. What is needed is not more migrant bashing, nor more attacking the unemployed and incapacitated, but instead a progressive movement that can properly represent the country’s workers, no matter their income, skills, location, or ethnicity. People are crying out for Miliband and the party to support them, but they are being ignored in favour of continued submission to the right-wing press’s fantasy view of Britain. Labour will not survive if the left decides that it can do better without it, and the last eight months have proven that a more functional opposition than parliament’s can be found on the streets. If Labour continue on their present course, they may find that opposition finally turns against them, too.

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