Changing the direction of the Starmer project depends on the combined pressure of many campaigns, writes Lauren Harper.
Every other week, ‘Labour Twitter’ is ablaze with people lamenting Keir Starmer’s latest U-turn. Recently it transpired that his shadow ministers took £10,000 in gifts from Google and Youtube soon before the party U-turned against increasing the Digital Services Tax by 10%. The irony of Starmer’s leadership slogan ‘integrity, authority, unity’ cannot be overstated.
But he has still to U-turn in the right direction. A hard line on the two-child benefit cap led many people to believe that Starmer has taken to the idea of starving children. During his visit to Blantyre’s David Livingston Centre to promote Labour in the Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election, he made a half-hearted capitulation to critics of the hardline policy. Yet he is still maintaining that it is too expensive to reverse the policy.
You would struggle to find a socialist who doesn’t think the two child cap is repugnant. Removing it would lift 250,000 children out of poverty almost overnight, and significantly improve the circumstances of some 850,000 children. It disproportionately affects children from minority ethnic backgrounds and children in single-parent households. Which perhaps makes it rather fitting that the Labour Party chose to hold the event in a centre dedicated to a renowned colonialist rather than, say, the still-thriving miners’ club.
The two child cap fuels the misogynistic dogma that women who claim welfare are actually lazy sluts who would rather pop out babies to claim more money in order to pay for their nails and iPhones on the state’s money. Yet the policy is incredibly popular amongst the sections of the public that Labour is targeting, so Labour has taken to the idea.
What should the left do when Labour adopts policies that track principles and prejudices of sections of the public that are opposed by many socialists? Fortunately the party’s history provides examples of struggle that can set a precedent for socialists today.
In 1985, Labour Conference in Bournemouth passed a resolution committing the party to gay rights. At the height of AIDS panic, the topic of equal rights for gay communities was deeply unpopular within the country. But this was the Labour Party at its best, with leaders who stood in the face of criticism and said that what was happening was wrong, and that the dominant cultural norms are wrong. As a political party we are at our best when we do this.
So what is the key difference between the party of the 80s that struggled for gay rights and the party today that adopts policies in line with the dominant culture norms? There are many answers, but one is clear: solidarity. The 1985 resolution was only passed due to block support from the National Union of Miners, which later became one of the most outspoken critics of Section 28 in the fight against it in 1988. This stance followed the solidarity offered to the miners’ strike by Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, a group who raised over £20,000 to support miners and their families in Neath, Dulais and the Swansea Valleys.
Today, Labour likes to virtue-signal about how it is the party of gay rights. But the principles that led the party to take its stance in 1985 have been almost entirely forgotten in recent years. In the struggle for trans rights we have succumbed to the culture wars of the right-wing press and thrown one of the most-attacked minority groups under the campaign bus.
As socialists and trade unionists it is imperative that our movement builds solidarity amongst minoritised groups in order to force the party leadership back to left-wing progressive policies. Trans solidarity is one example. In Glasgow, groups of people funded by American anti-choice organisations have been standing outside abortion clinics in order to intimidate women accessing reproductive care. Trans women have been some of the most vocal and active against these groups. There are parallels between the campaign to remove abortion access and the campaign of bigotry against trans rights. Trans women are putting themselves in dangerous situations to fight for cis-women’s rights to abortion.
Within Labour there are diverging opinions on trans issues. Fortunately, within trade unions, solidarity with trans rights is strong. At Unite’s policy conference I was part of an effort co-ordinated by young members and the LGBT caucus to go against the Executive Council and speak against a motion that was designed to be a Trojan horse against the multitude of equalities motions passed only the day before.
Migrant solidarity is another example where solidarity shows the power of the progressive left. In Erskine, trade unionists have been out in force demonstrating against fascist groups who have been vocal about their displeasure that refugees are being housed in a hotel in the area. One of the protests that unions demonstrated against has been linked to the banned group Patriotic Alternative. The opposition to fascists has been so strong that the fascist groups have been routinely outnumbered by anti-racist groups, and on some occasions have simply not shown up at all.
Meanwhile, at the top of the Labour Party, Keir Starmer wishes, once again, to steamroll over Scottish democracy, to overrule the Scottish leadership on trans rights, and to continue housing migrants on barges as a form of temporary accommodation. Given Labour’s bleak positions despite the solidarity from below, you would be entirely forgiven for asking: what exactly is the point of the party? In previous years, socialists in Labour could point to the better prospects under a Labour government. Even under our most right-wing leaders workers’ rights were strengthened, and it was easier for trade unions to organise in the workplace and society. In truth, we can’t sincerely say that anymore. You know times are bad for socialists in Labour when you find yourself in a situation in which you start your points “well at least Blair…”. Starmer stands for nothing, blowing whichever way the wind takes him that week.
So in our resistance to the Starmer regime we must be organised. The left needs to be united in resistance to the leadership. Starmer’s unease about the two child cap has shown he is not static, and with enough pressure the wider socialist movement can still change the direction of the party. From the gay rights struggle in the 80s to our presence as Erskine and at abortion clinics, and our campaign against the two child cap, it is through solidarity that we fight back against the Starmer project.
Lauren Harper is a member of the Scottish Executive Committee of the Labour Party, and a branch secretary of Unite Hospitality.