The close of 2016 has provided us with a brilliant insight into what the British Labour left thinks of workers. Last week, a bunch of warbling Labour MPs released a charity single to raise awareness about the plight of retail workers. To the tune of Band Aid’s ‘Do They Know it’s Christmas?’ (yes, they do; 500million Africans are Christians for heaven’s sake), the tuneless politicians sing: ‘Christmas is hard / On the national minimum wage / At Christmastime we give / But some employers take.’ It gets worse. ‘Keep their perrrrks / Don’t be Scrooge at Christmastime’, goes the chorus. That someone in Labour thought it a good idea to treat retail workers as 2016’s version of starving Ethiopian kids, needing the great and good to sing and weep for them, is remarkable. It’s so bad that the ‘only proportionate response is to disband the Labour Party wholesale’, as one hack said.
Then, around the same time, the impact of the Southern rail strikes really started to kick in. For nine months the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) has been in a dispute with Southern’s bosses over the changing role of conductors on trains. A series of short, sharp strikes has been called, causing travel delays. Labour’s response? Has it cheered these workers for making a point about how ‘we give and employers take’? Has it welcomed their standing up to Scroogey bosses? Not really. It has issued half-arsed statements about Southern needing to get its act together and the strikes being ‘disastrous’. It’s brilliantly illuminating, telling a pretty big story about the left today: it likes workers when they’re sad-eyed Caffè Nero staff in need of a caring pat on the head; it doesn’t like them when they take action for themselves by exerting the greatest power workers have: the withdrawal of their labour.
Alongside the Southern dispute there will also be strike activity in the Post Office and at airports over Christmas, and Labour’s response has basically been to pull an awkward face. ‘Diane Abbott defends series of strikes planned in run-up to Christmas’, said one newspaper headline. No she doesn’t. ‘People do have a legal right to strike’, she said — very generous — but ‘of course these strikes are going to be very disastrous [if] they go ahead’. Not just disastrous — very disastrous. Her boss Jeremy Corbyn has taken the brave step of ‘refusing to condemn the strikes’, as the Daily Mail put it, which is another way of saying he hasn’t said much in support of them. A statement from his office said ‘Southern’s miserable service’ shouldn’t be blamed on unions but on ‘the incompetence of management’. Forward to the barricades! Perhaps this will be etched on his gravestone.
Other Labour MPs have condemned the strikes, happily. MP Meg Hillier made right-leaning newspapers smile when she said trade unions need a ‘wake-up call’ and must think about ‘the impact’ of their actions. Actually, Hillier’s comments weren’t that different to Abbott’s. ‘It is absolutely right that people should have the right to strike’, she said, but it’s ‘very unfortunate’ that they choose to do so in a disruptive way — an echo of Abbott’s ‘right to legal strike… but it’s very disastrous’ comment. This defence of the right to strike alongside handwringing over the disruptive nature of strikes has always struck me as odd. Strikes are meant to be disruptive, that’s the point. Strikes are an assertion by working-class people of a power they too often lack in the political sphere; they’re a reminder that workers matter, an awful lot, and should not be messed about. To hold a polite strike that didn’t dent the everyday functioning of society would be pointless. In fact it wouldn’t be a strike.