Keir Starmer’s 5 January address to the nation had a surreal quality. Hunched before a Union Jack, he fretfully listed groups of people who would be inconvenienced by the new lockdown and its “difficulties”, before rallying to tell us that the “strength of the British people” will see everything right, and in particular that Brits will get vaccinated before any foreigners do.
It was as if a distressed and confused performer had been forced by his employer to go on TV to do Captain Mainwaring impressions.
Politically, Starmer gave no indication that he was the leader of the political wing of the British trade union movement. Through the pandemic, the workers’ movement has been raising demands for social measures to make the fight against the virus possible. The surging infection rate makes such demands urgent. Starmer might have mentioned the TUC’s call for Statutory Sick Pay to be increased to at least the level of the real living wage (i.e. more than tripled).
He might have pointed out that in-work poverty and insecure employment make infection control harder, by forcing people to go to work when they feel ill. Or even repeated the Shadow Chancellor’s suggestion that Universal Credit be boosted.
At the very least, you might have thought that the leader of the party of labour would mention the fact that the National Education Union had just forced the government to close primary schools.
You’d be wrong. This speech wasn’t about any of that stuff. It was about Britain – and about how the new leader of the Labour Party is not in the IRA. In a 599-word speech, he said the words “Britain”, “British”, “nation” and “country” 15 times; “Labour” once; “union” not at all.
Starmer’s line was that Labour would support the government as part of a “national effort”. Oppositional activities are to be restricted to asking questions. These questions will not be about sick pay or layoffs, but about support for “businesses and families” (he said that twice, always "businesses" first). Clearly, to him, the defiance of school workers was an embarrassment, and hurt Labour’s credibility as a party of order.
The ruling class always calls for national unity in the event of great crises. The Labour and trade union bureaucracies often parrot these calls obediently, because they see it as their job to persuade bosses that they aren’t a threat and can be safely permitted to form governments. The slogan of national unity is popular with some politicians who think that they can scrape up some votes by wrapping themselves in the flag.
But the problem with “national unity” in the face of a crisis is that it’s always one-sided. The capitalist class does not stop fighting the class war – lay-offs, pay cuts, profiteering off the public sector, and profit-driven recklessness with workers’ lives all continue apace – but moral pressure is heaped upon workers to lay down their arms and accept their lot.
Various groups of workers have taken action to assert their rights and interests against the bosses in the turmoil of the pandemic. Outsourced staff at Great Ormond Street Hospital won the fight to be brought in-house. Care workers across the UK have taken the crisis as a spur to organise and civilise the care industry. British Gas workers are set to strike to stop a “fire and rehire” attack on their terms and conditions.
But Starmer, the leading political representative of these workers, is invoking “the national interest” and going on about “sacrifice” to get them to stop resisting exploitation. Only polite questions about “support for businesses and families” are allowed.
The nationalist message of Starmer’s speech is truly abysmal. It should stand as a warning to others about the brain-rotting consequences of the “progressive patriotism” pill, pushed by the likes of the Morning Star and Paul Embery. On the face of it, it’s just another dismal iteration of the key theme in Starmer’s leadership – daubing on the Union Jack face-paint and saying “British” over and over to win back the Red Wall.
Starmer tells a series of absurd lies: that the UK was “the first country in the world to get the vaccine” (Russia and China were first); that Britain got the vaccine because of “the brilliance of our scientists” (all currently-available vaccines were the result of large-scale international co-operation); that Britain can be the first in the world to vaccinate a lot of its citizens (Israel is far ahead here).
But besides the clownishness and falsehoods, Starmer’s underlying point here is grotty and immoral. We are supposed to glory in national pride and feel good about ourselves if people in this country get the vaccine before people in, say, Iraq or Greece? What kind of slimeball would get off on that? Who does this creep take us for?
The labour movement should not lay down its arms. Equality, social solidarity, money for the sick, relief for the unemployed or those self-isolating, are all urgent preconditions for controlling the virus.
The workers’ movement doesn’t need a focus-group-driven clown show: it needs a political voice that loudly champions its struggles and describes a working-class, socialist answer to the crisis of the pandemic.