By not taking a position on Rwanda or the railway strikes, the Labor Party exposes itself to attack | Owen Jones
Jhe 1970s are back: well, without the flares, roller discos and other good bits. Inflation and a stagnant economy have combined with the classic conservative poison brew of migrant-bashing and union-baiting.
It is not a coincidence. A right-wing party faced with escalating social and economic unrest is always tempted to press a big red button emblazoned with the inscription “spawn bogeymen to deflect popular anger”.
At the time, Margaret Thatcher spoke of the public being “really rather scared that this country could be rather flooded with people of different culture”, while the newspaper headlines castigate the “union activists”. Today, the government is pledging to continue deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda, despite Tuesday’s last-minute reprieve, while considering tightening the already stifling noose of anti-union legislation in response to the upcoming national railroad strike. Anything to distract from soaring bread, pasta or energy prices that are eroding people’s standard of living.
On both fronts, the Tories are targeting the weakness of their Labor opponents. They know they have a clear, uncompromising message, while Labor has no consistent position. Officials do not believe that opposition parties can create a political climate and must instead bend to where the voters are. According to the wisdom received from the party, these voters are anti-migrant and anti-union. This poses a problem for a party whose members are pro-migrants and whose support – and financial base – comes from the labor movement.
The point of view of Labor strategists on this subject is simple: evade the question, avoid getting bogged down in controversy and wait for the storm to pass. There might be more to say about this approach if Labor had another issue to draw media attention to, but that is not the case, and the conversation therefore remains centered on the issues that the party conservative wants to dominate.
Unable to steer the debate, the Labor Party exposes itself to attacks from its base, the public and the Conservative Party. Management can alienate its base by not supporting workers and migrants; the general public may interpret his intransigence as a lack of sincerity; and the conservative party is able to define the position of its adversaries.
Keir Starmer’s legal instincts speak of speaking in terms of process, rather than moral conviction, but that leaves voters – who are human beings, not robots – cold. However, there is an opportunity for the leader to express the concerns and values shared by the general public in the face of the radicalization of the conservatives.
Given that anti-migrant hostility has diminished – albeit to alarming levels, and remains pervasive among millions – Labor has a greater opportunity to advocate for a more compassionate. Humanizing migrants and refugees and highlighting that they are used as scapegoats for the injustices caused by conservative policies will be more compelling, especially if combined with coherent responses to these issues. Labor should tackle the real wage cuts workers are facing as prices rise in excess of wage increases, and support railway workers standing up for themselves and their families.
It can be done. In Question Time last week, Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting said: ‘If I was a member of the RMT and my jobs [sic] were at risk like that then I would be vote for the strike and I would vote to defend the terms and conditions of my job. If I was a government minister right now, it’s not my job to be on the picket line, it’s not my job to condemn the unions – it’s my job to solve the problem, to get people around the table, to make sure passengers aren’t embarrassed. That response may be driven by cynical political positioning as he maneuvers for leadership, but it shows that Labor politicians can argue convincingly for industrial action if they so choose.
Labour’s current lead in the polls is driven entirely by Tory self-immolation, but its own MPs are increasingly aware that, without a clear vision for the country, that advantage could soon evaporate. So rather than spouting muddled messages that risk alienating both natural Labor supporters and the swing voters Starmer’s team wants to attract, it’s best to speak with conviction and emotional intelligence. Rather than battening down the hatches and waiting for these storms to pass, the opposition has far more power to shape the political climate than it realizes.
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