Speaking in Sheffield on 7 February, Labour leader candidate Rebecca Long-Bailey pledged to back all striking workers “no questions asked”, promising to be a leader “as comfortable on the picket line as at the dispatch box”.
She argued that building up trade unionism should be central to increasing Labour support, including in areas lost to the Tories, and said a Labour government should aim to increase union membership by a million in its first year.
We are not supporting Long-Bailey, because of her close ties to the established Labour "backroom" cabals of the Unite union hierarchy and long-time Stalinist officials, and because she is no better (sometimes worse) than the other candidates on key issues of Labour democracy, especially conference sovereignty.
However, credit is due here. This is better than Starmer’s appeal to the safely dead good cause of strikes several decades in the past, to say nothing of Lisa Nandy’s dismissal of “placard-waving” (as if Labour does much of it!) and cautioning against “picking a side” (it’s strikers vs consumers, apparently) in strikes.
However, we should ask the following:
• What about repealing the anti-trade union and anti-strike laws – all of them, in line with clear Labour conference policy? Long Bailey’s campaign has remained silent or at best highly ambiguous about this. She has not replied to the Free Our Unions pledge for leadership candidates.
• Will she be better than Jeremy Corbyn has been?
There is a pervasive view that Corbyn has stood strongly and consistently with workers in struggle. A closer look reveals a much more mixed picture. The party under Corbyn has done virtually nothing to support strikes and workers’ struggles; and the same is true of most of its leadership. Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell is a partial exception.
Corbyn himself has done much less than you might expect. This is important because he has a voice and mobilising power much greater than others. Of course he has been better than his predecessors as leader – but that was a low bar to beat. He has not been a consistent presence, energetic campaigner or loud voice in support of strikes.
He attended a protest for the last McDonald’s strike – a politically safe and photogenic event, but not really an ongoing industrial dispute. In contrast, he has largely steered clear of much more sustained, disruptive and controversial rail strikes against Drive Only Operation. Ditto, any dispute where the employer is a Labour council (which includes some important ones, like the Durham and Derby TAs).
He attended a junior doctors’ demonstration in 2017, but not any picket lines.
Most perplexing of all is the Picturehouse dispute, going on for two years at multiple sites a few Tube stops from Parliament. Corbyn’s office evaded repeated requests for him to join the picket lines – something which in 2017 might well have made a decisive difference. Corbyn did nothing to help the strike except a short written statement right at the end of the dispute.
We need to know whether Rebecca Long-Bailey means something different.
Constituency Labour Party nominations for the Labour Party leader, deputy leader, and National Executive elections close on 14 February.
Many warm words have been spoken about “democratising” the party, but aside from disagreement on open selections (RLB for, Nandy against, Starmer not saying), with few specifics.
Attitudes to Labour councils and councillors have also generated a lot of words and some heat – many Labour councillors don’t like Long-Bailey, basically because they are right-wing – but none of the candidates is saying much distinctive about the issues.
Get Labour onto the streets!
In an interview on 5 February, Labour leader candidate Lisa Nandy said: "The entirety of the British Left... we are starting to be very much in danger of abandoning politics for protest.
“By politics what I mean is a willingness to negotiate the shared challenges that we face".
This line is the opposite of what the labour movement needs as we face Boris Johnson's Tory government.
The "challenges we face" - closed doors to migrants, public services cut back, all the rest - are not "shared" at all by the top Tory politicians and the wealthy class they represent.
And the Tory government is not offering "negotiations" even on "challenges" which threaten us all, like climate change.
Most of what the labour movement has gained over the centuries, and of what we have been able to conserve over the hard decades since Thatcher, has come from protest, mobilisation, action, strikes, demonstrations - not sighing, sitting back, and hoping some clever person will negotiate well for us.
"On the Left, most of us came into politics in order to campaign, in order to stand up for certain values…
“But it is not enough to pick a side and shout, especially at the moment when the country feels so needlessly divided…
“Every time there is a strike in Britain, the phone call goes into the leader’s office: are you supporting this strike or not? When it was Ed there would be lots of debate about it, with Jeremy it’s fairly straightforward.
“Our response has only ever been to pick a side. When I look at the most recent strikes for example, on public transport [there, workers who commute have] got their interests pitted against a group of people in the public sector who are probably quite low paid, their jobs are pretty insecure and they are standing up for their rights.
“How is it then that Labour’s response is that we pick one side or another and ignore the fact that it is the system at fault and that needs to be changed?”
Indeed, the rail unions want to change the system of running the railways - from a mess of privatised for-profit operations, to a public service under public ownership.
But the railworkers know that they will get near that only by standing up for themselves, and getting the labour movement to "pick their side".
Get Labour onto the streets! Demand the Labour Party starts a drive, with demonstrations, rallies, against the Tory government and for essential public services!
Pick the side of the working class!