Danny Finkelstein is wrong: Labour can unite workers & commuters alike in an electorally popular way, if only they are willing

The Labour Party are currently in a quandary. Faced with rail strikes that are popular among rail workers, but not quite so popular among rail commuters, it is facing a bit of a crossroad. Does it come out and side with “the workers” or does it reposition itself as on the side of “the commuters”? Is it likely to win more support backing rail workers or supporting the interests of commuters?

Danny Finkelstein states the problem this way:

Stuck between its identity as the party of “workers” and its aspiration to govern on behalf of everyone, the opposition has found it difficult to articulate a coherent response. Perhaps eyeing the leadership, in the event that something unfortunate should happen to Sir Keir Starmer following his encounter with an onion bhaji, the shadow ministers Wes Streeting and Lisa Nandy have let it be known they are on the side of the rail workers. Streeting went as far as to say that were he a rail worker he would be voting to go on strike.

Yet in case this brought some unwelcome clarity, Streeting has also said he hoped the strikes he would vote for if he could nevertheless don’t happen. Nandy has said that as well as siding with the railway workers in their strike against the public, she also sides with the public. Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor, avoided such confusion by the expedient of not really saying anything at all. She just said she didn’t want there to be strikes.

I think he is right that these are certainly the two poles they are dancing between. Wanting to support “working people” on the one hand whilst not wanting to appear to support something that might prove to be electorally unpopular on the other. Do they support the Unions on principle or do they decry industrial action in the hope they will win more votes that way?

I think Finkelstein somewhat unfairly maligns the position of Nandy and Streeting. They support the rail workers but are quite clear that they hope strikes don’t happen. That isn’t the fudge the article suggests. It seems Nandy and Streeting support the demands of the workers and trust that their bosses will cede to them. In the event that they don’t, a strike will go ahead. Everybody hopes that doesn’t happen. But the solution, if you support the workers, is to blame those who will not grant their request for the ensuing action rather than pinning the blame on those you believe are seeking something fairly and reasonably and pulling the only lever they have to get it.

However, that is not the substance of the article nor what I wanted to talk about. Finkelstein goes on:

Rachel Reeves covered her non-answer by saying that Labour is the party of working people. I am not sure how seriously to take this, since I am sure she would also say it was the party of people who will work, who used to work, who wish to work and who do not wish to work. But let’s take it at face value for a moment.

Working people have to get to work. And many of them (of us) have to travel by train in order to do so. So the strike by railway workers is not merely a strike by working people, it is also a strike against working people. And not by poor working people against better-off ones. Many of the people inconvenienced by the rail strike, or ultimately faced with higher fares to pay for it, will have worse pay and conditions than the strikers.

Finkelstein is right – as he notes earlier on – that ‘Labour was created as a coalition between socialists and the labour movement. Financed by the unions and designed to ensure the representation of working-class people in parliament, the party was persuaded to become explicitly socialist.’ Given this history, it is hardly surprising that Labour would support the rail workers. The rail workers are largely not middle-class graduates and white collar workers, but working class people who ought to be represented by someone in parliament. Though the claim that Labour stands for “workers” sounds like a fudge – pitting one set of workers against another – the truth is, “workers” is a term that sounds close enough to “working class” to be understood as still representing Labour whilst sounding to middle-class ears as also representing those that work in general.

What is missed in the article is that those who work on railways are largely working class, whilst those who use the railways are typically middle class. Train tickets are so astronomically expensive, they are not usually for those on lower incomes. They are the preserve of the commuters – and guess what class of people tend to commute to work on trains – and those in jobs that pay expenses, and again, which class tends to have such jobs? As Lisa Nandy has pointed out repeatedly, most local journeys in predominantly working class and deprived areas are taken by bus if there is any public transport involved at all. Whilst Danny Finkelstein wants to suggest the strike is one set of workers merely inconveniencing another set of workers and expecting them to pay for the privilege, the analysis does not bear scrutiny. It is clearly a case of working class labour inconveniencing middle-class workers; it is the working class service providers inconveniencing the middle-class service users.

Finkelstein argues ‘many of the people inconvenienced by the rail strike, or ultimately faced with higher fares to pay for it, will have worse pay and conditions than the strikers.’ I don’t doubt that it is possible that some people on worse pay and conditions may be hit – though if the rail workers are successful that would be a solid argument for joining a union – but the overwhelming majority affected will be middle-class, white collar workers. This is the reality of those who use the trains. Most working class people will remain local and use the bus service.

That is why Finkelstein’s argument here fails:

If the strikes are successful, or if, as the shadow ministers suggest, the government buys off the strike, it will involve redistributing money from one set of working people to another. Supporting the strike (and saying government should prevent it is one form of supporting it) is thus supporting two things.

First, it supports the settlement of disputes between sections of working people by the use of industrial muscle to force others to pay up. And second, it supports the claim of railway workers against other types of working people. I’ve no idea why Labour would wish to support either of these things, save perhaps for historical muscle memory.

Whereas, in fact, it is working class labour pitting themselves against better off middle-class workers. It is not a dispute between two equal sections of working people, but between those who serve a particular sector of the workforce who can afford – and have the tendency to need – to use the railways to commute. That is not your average working class person. Nor is it seeking resolution directly from those who use the trains. It is looking to those turning significant profits within the privatised system to deal with their concerns over pay and conditions.

Of course, if the paymasters cede to the demands, they can choose to pass them on to the middle-class consumers riding their already astronomically expensive trains. Or, they can choose to accept a slight reduction in their already sizeable profits. But that will hardly be one set of workers taking anything out on another set of workers, so much as one large company choosing to pass on costs to its service users. There is clearly a world in which the strikers’ demands can be met, service users do not face increased costs and the company continue to turn a profit. But we live in a world where making even greater profits still very often wins out. But this will be a service provider choice, rather than the fault of those seeking reasonable pay rises and credible working conditions on the back of several years of pay freezes and reductions in staff.

Nevertheless, where does this leave Labour? Danny Finkelstein wants to argue thusly:

It’s quite obvious that the future for the left lies in uniting people of liberal instinct, as the Conservative appeal wanes. Keir Starmer should seek to build a new broader coalition. And he should see the rail strike not as an awkward political difficulty, but as an opportunity to show bold leadership and define himself and his party as the commuter’s champion. The railways could be his ticket to the top.

For what it’s worth, I think that is a hard mistake. For Finkelstein is effectively arguing that Keir Starmer should set himself as the middle-class, white-collar champion over and against the working classes that Labour was historically set up to represent. Such is the reality of the modern rail commuter. More to the point, one could readily champion both the rail workers and the commuters by laying the onus at the door of the profit making company. Should they cede to demands, and see their profits reduce marginally, everybody wins. No strike, better pay and conditions for their workers and no inconvenience for commuters. That would be the sensible move for Labour to make here, whilst using the opportunity to champion the increasingly popular policy of re-nationalisation of the railway. It’s a three-for-one ready made for them.

Indeed, against Finkelstain’s advice, not only does the future for Labour NOT lie in uniting people of “liberal instinct”, but this strikes at the heart of Labour’s travails. There is a clear and evident gap in UK politics for a left-wing, communitarian yet socially conservative party. That is a political position that even many of my Conservative friends admit would clear up at a general election these days. In many ways, the historic Labour position was always that. They were not liberal progressives, but conservative socialists. There was much about Englishness they wished to preserve, much about tradition and faith to which they were sympathetic and supportive, but they were fiercely on the side of working-class labour. As I argued here, it was their push towards liberalism that changed all that.

Many of Labour’s travails among the working-classes – who they were historically setup to represent and whom they insist they still support – owe much to their push towards progressive liberalism; a stance that almost always tends to focus on and favour bourgeoise middle-class concerns. The obsession with identitarian politics and conflicts in the Middle East – matters that have little to no interest for most working-class people – did not endear them to the ordinary folk of Oldham and Rochdale. As Lisa Nandy rightly noted – before taking her own deep-dive down the ID politics rabbit hole during her run for the Labour leadership – ‘most people in Wigan just want a working bus service’. Instead, as Kathleen Stock entirely rightly notes here, Labour instead offer bourgeois feminism, solutions to problems that almost exclusively impact middle-class people and/or those living in London and focus on matters that may be of concern in Hampstead but have little traction in Harpurhey.

Perhaps what Labour need is to once again fulfil their purpose to represent working-class people. They should speak to the concerns of working class people. Whilst they should, of course, reach out to the middle-classes and seek to build as broad a coalition as possible, when conflicts arise, they should represent the Labour Movement as they originally planned to do. And that potentially starts with properly backing the striking rail workers, making the case for a renationalised service – an extremely popular move that will serve commuters and speaks to their own desires for the rail service – and simultaneously pins the blame for any inconvenience caused and unnecessary increases in prices that never seem to lead to better services at the appropriate door; namely, that of the profit-making companies.