Risks of being a union puppet, says MACER HALL

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KEEP LEFT and keep moving,” declare the signs dotted around Parliament’s corridors and cloisters to enforce coronavirus social distancing. It is a recommendation that Sir Keir Starmer appears to have taken to heart.

Since taking over from Jeremy Corbyn five months ago, the Labour leader has kept faith with the hard-Left programme bequeathed by his Marxist predecessor. He has stuck to Labour’s commitment to sweeping state control of industry and shown little inclination to rethink the radical policies that helped his party to its worst general election defeat since 1935 last December.

Yet in the Commons and media, the opposition leader has demonstrated a knack of keeping moving with impressive agility. To the frustration of ministers, he has repeatedly shifted Labour’s position on the handling of the coronavirus crisis to deftly avoid the Tory attack.

ir Keir appears to be following the tactics of the US presidential challenger Joe Biden in saying as little as possible about his own policies while hoping for his opponent to mess up. Moderate Labour MPs and supporters will perhaps be relieved to have a party leader taking inspiration from Washington rather than Moscow or Tehran as Mr Corbyn and his extremist clique did. Yet Sir Keir has rather longer than Mr Biden to wait to see whether the strategy works with the next general election almost certainly several years away.

So far in his leadership, the ducking away from firm policy positions appears to be paying off for the Labour leader. When Prime Minister’s Questions resumed this week after Westminster’s long summer break, Boris Johnson again struggled to score any direct rhetorical hits on his opponent across the floor.

Mr Johnson and his allies have attempted to brand the opposition leader as a Corbynite fellow traveller, an opportunist bandwagon leaper and a metropolitan lawyer too clever for his good without any of the labels sticking. Like the slippery Tony Blair, Sir Keir is proving a tricky target for the Tories. Yet the Labour leader’s shifting stance has also blunted his attack. He has failed to exploit the Government’s reluctance to make a full-throated call for the millions of employees working from home to return to their offices. Mr Johnson’s aides suspect Sir Keir is nervous about upsetting the trade unions.

One senior Tory source said: “Starmer has not said a peep about getting the country back to work. He’s been as silent on that as he was about school being safe for children to return to.

“He seems to prefer speaking up for Labour’s union paymasters rather than those who depend most on economic growth for their livelihoods.”

Union leaders sense the coronavirus is their chance to claw back the power stripped from them by Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government in the 1980s. They hope to demonstrate their influence by attempting to put the brake on the return to the workplace.

Sir Keir should be wary about being seen as a puppet of the unions. A divide is already growing between the white-collar, managerial classes able to enjoy the benefits of remote working and blue-collar workers who cannot do their jobs from a laptop. It is tradesmen and women, cleaners, technicians, transport staff and other non-clerical workers who are set to suffer most as long as the country’s city centres remain ghost towns and the level of unemployment creeps up.

For decades, a succession of Labour leaders have put the party at odds with those who once made up its traditional support. With his keep Left and keep moving strategy, Sir Keir is already at risk of making the same mistake.

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