Starmer is right not to dance to Tory tunes over strikes. He must find a tune of his own

Nothing about this week’s rail strike is the fault of the Labour party, although that doesn’t stop the Tories trying to make it Keir Starmer’s problem.

The RMT union isn’t even affiliated to 労働, but that hasn’t stopped Conservative MPs denouncing the shadow cabinet as stooges of a fanatical socialist extortion racket.

That reflects reluctance to give up on a line of attack that was so effective when Jeremy Corbyn led the opposition. It has less purchase against Starmer who banished his predecessor from the parliamentary Labour party (and is reviled for it on the left). But the rest of his politics are vague and the Tories strive to paint any blank parts of the canvas in darkest red. If the Labour leader can’t be denounced as a disciple of Corbynism he might yet be depicted as its hostage.

Old-school left militancy is certainly well represented in the upper echelons of the RMT, だが the strikers’ demands are hardly Bolshevik – a pay rise below inflation and protection from compulsory redundancy.

The government prefers to talk about “modernisation” of the railways (meaning fewer ticket offices and a smaller payroll). Ministers demand pay restraint as a defence against inflation, warning darkly of a return to conditions that crippled the British economy in the 1970s. It is a memory Conservatives revive with relish because it contains a morality tale about over-mighty unions and national decline checked by the firm smack of Thatcherism.

The analogy is politically and economically tenuous. Trade unions have a fraction of their former clout. Train cancellations are not comparable to nationwide blackouts; commuter inconvenience is not anarchy. It is not a “summer of discontent” except in the pages of Tory-cheerleader newspapers. Inflation-busting pay rises are not the villain behind the current inflation spike, which began when real wages had been stagnant or falling for a decade.

It wasn’t long ago that Boris Johnson boasted that British workers would enjoy higher salaries and lower prices as dividends of Brexit. He hasn’t got a clue what is happening to the economy. In the absence of a plan to make things better, the prime minister settles for making them worse and deflecting the blame – his signature move.

To that end, Johnson accuses the opposition of conspiring against toiling commuters. Starmer has ordered his frontbench not to leap into that trap by joining picket lines. The Labour left is unimpressed, wondering aloud what their party is for if not solidarity with workers resisting Tory cuts to public services. And two shadow ministers were pictured with RMT comrades proudly defying their leader’s instruction.

The official Labour position is that the strike is to be lamented as a symptom of government failure; that negotiations in good faith could have avoided this week’s disruption. That is sensible on paper but deficient as a political argument because it doesn’t really express a point of view. The opinion that unfortunate situations could be avoided with better government is too banal to leave any imprint on its audience.

There is a tactical defence of unmemorable banality when the terms of debate are skewed against Labour. Presented with a choice between fealty to militant union bosses and agreeing with Tories it makes sense for Starmer to opt for neither. If that is the only thing that voters learn about the opposition stance from the radio as they crawl to work in second gear because the train was cancelled, 上手, it could be worse.

But damage limitation is not a winning strategy over time because, by definition, some damage still gets through. There are advantages to reticence if it gives your enemies nothing to attack, but the downside to being a small target is that people who hardly pay attention to politics – which is most people – don’t realise you are even there.

Starmer deserves credit for taking the capsized vessel of his party, straightening the rudder and getting it buoyant again, but even his supporters worry that he is now becalmed.

There is a plan to reveal Labour’s direction and vision in the coming months, and there is merit in refusing to be blown off course by Tory bluster. But effective opposition also requires agility, which means finding ways to turn distractions into platforms and attacks into opportunities to explain yourself. Instead of shrinking from a position on strikes, and retreating from the shadows of the 1970s, Labour could make a virtue of the comparison by revelling in its absurdity.

The Tories want to talk about events four decades ago because they have no plan for the present, and only fear of the future, Starmer could say. Striking workers and commuters are on the same side, because they both want investment in railways that actually work. Johnson is always fishing around for someone else to blame for the chaos he has wrought, but if he won’t take responsibility for fixing the country, he should get out of the way and let the grownups have a go.

It isn’t hard to draft a script that leaps out of the Tory frame and narrates the same story, minus the reactive flinch. Ideally, Starmer would also improve his delivery, sounding less like a supply teacher appealing for order in an unruly classroom that doesn’t feel it owes him respect. Having a less evasive message might help with that.

Strikes are never going to be a favourite subject for the Labour leader. He is more romantically attached to his party’s roots in the union movement than is recognised by his critics on the left. But he also understands that waving placards and joining protest marches is how Labour signals to voters that it is comfortable in opposition, which is a reason why the party keeps failing to get into government.

But if it isn’t strikes forcing shadow ministers to mince their words it will be something else: 移民, Brexi, tax cuts. There will be no charitable window where the government invites Starmer to set the agenda. Johnson’s Downing Street is a campaign machine that will use every lever of state power to reinforce the prime minister’s position and make life difficult for the opposition. All policy is made subordinate to that task.

Starmer’s cautious messaging comes from a principled refusal to dance to Tory tunes. But the beat is relentless and at some stage Labour will have to make a move; use the attacks to pivot in ways that grab the public’s attention. Caution is a good way to avoid calamitous missteps, but safety in discretion is a wallflower strategy. The risk at the end of the night is being left, yet again, on the opposition shelf.

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