A great opportunity
THERESA MAY’S GOVERNMENT has had a rocky summer, what with the fallout from her sordid deal with the homophobic and extreme Democratic Unionist Party, the floundering Brexit negotiations and her callous indifference to the Grenfell disaster, illustrated by her failure to immediately take the care of the survivors out of the hands of the very council whose cost-cutting and contempt sent residents to their deaths.
But things are about to get a whole lot worse for May. The DUP is threatening to call off the deal to keep the government in office if it can’t guarantee the £1 billion bribe to Northern Ireland it promised. The government needed their votes to artificially fix the majorities on the crucial legislative committees that will debate bills, which Labour correctly denounced as a “constitutional outrage”. But May was abandoned by the DUP when she faced a Labour motion to increase NHS workers’ pay. This itself illustrates a new front against Conservative rule.
The government's bluster cannot disguise the fact that its pay policy now lies in absolute tatters. As union after union lined up at September’s TUC conference to denounce the public sector pay cap and threaten strike action - even if it meant going outside the law - May responded with classic divide and rule tactics, offering a pathetic 1.3% to prison officers and police, which in the latter case must be financed from existing budgets. Yet inflation is now running at nearly 3% - a five year high - fuelled by a pound in free fall, and threatening an interest rate hike that could stifle any economic recovery and further dent living standards.
Despite declining union membership, a new mood of industrial militancy is brewing - and not just because the government is weak - but because workers and their organisations now have to fight for survival. The reality is that the last seven years of austerity have had a crippling effect on living standards, especially in the public sector. Teachers’ pay has fallen by 12% over a decade, intensifying the crisis of recruitment and retention of staff in the profession. New research shows that public sector workers are going without food and heat to make ends meet - nearly 10% surveyed were missing a regular daily meal and over a quarter piling up more debt than they had a year ago. The firefighters’ rejection of a 2% pay increase could be the beginning of a public sector fight back against what is clearly a weak and divided government.
With the stunning gains made in June’s general election, Labour can be a united, confident opposition to the increasingly unpopular Tories. Infighting from within Labour’s parliamentary party has abated - although not ended totally - and with the resignation of Kezia Dugdale in Scotland and the gains made by the left in internal elections for the Party’s Conference Arrangements Committee, for example, there are clear signs that all sections of the Party can now pull in the same direction as its popular leader.
The election of a new leader of the Scottish Labour Party in particular presents a great opportunity for Labour to reposition itself and win back Scottish voters. For too long Labour has been seen as to the right of the SNP, viewing independence as the main threat. As the SNP’s electoral standing began to decline, a Labour leadership committed to an anti-austerity agenda could have made big gains. Instead the Tories, defying trends elsewhere, picked up seats. A new orientation, which sees the Tories as the main enemy, under a Corbyn-supporting leadership, such as that offered by Richard Leonard MSP, can begin to turn this around.
The impact of the influx of new members over the past two years is finally making itself felt. We now have the best opportunity in decades to improve policy and democratise the functioning of our party. To sustain that, we need to build a movement within and beyond Labour that can maintain the pressure both on the government and on our party to continue to press for a clear alternative - building on the game-changing 2017 election manifesto, developing and updating its ideas ahead of a fresh election that could come at any time. The trade unions, taking on the government’s discredited pay cap, can play a central role in that movement.