With the Tories showing no signs of getting off the train to self-destruction, the Labor Party is increasingly looking like a government-in-waiting.

While it will be a welcome prospect for Keir Starmer after 12 years in opposition, attention is already turning to the minutiae of what his party will do in government.

While the Labor leader may be convincing the public at large that he has a rightful place at No 10 – some polls show his party leading by 30-plus points — there are some in his own tribe who are skeptical about what a Labor government might look like.

The unions, Labour’s biggest funder and long-time ally, are snapping at Starmer’s heels, demanding to know how he will decide cost of living crisis which forces them to strike in huge numbers.

On the one hand, Starmer wants to keep the unions and their members out. On the other hand, it is unlikely that the public will like him if he is too closely connected with the violation of the lives of ordinary voters.

In that case, Starmer’s cautious approach to power may prove incompatible with union demands. And that creates a challenge for the Labor leader as he makes his case to the public.

The mistrust some unions feel towards Starmer reached a fever pitch in the summer he told shadow ministers they should not go on pickets.

The latest round of Tory chaos, which culminated in the swift departure of Liz Truss, provided a convenient platform for Starmer to iron out some friction after months of struggle.

At the Trade Union Congress (TUC) in Brighton this week, he vowed to “rip up” the Trade Union Act 2016 and “resist and repeal” no further anti-union laws which may end up in the collection of laws.

But in order to create silence in the hall, he made it clear that he would not change his tactics on the pickets. He said he was “unapologetic about the approach to industrial action as a potential Labor government”.

“You represent the democratic choice of your members, you do your job, and I respect that, but my job is different,” he said.

A furious Sharon Graham, general secretary of Unite, asked Starmer: “Whose side are you on?”

Actions, not words

Indeed, with teachers, nurses and postal workers set to strike this winter, it will be difficult for the Labor leader to avoid Graham’s question.

Starmer’s recent interview with Good Morning Britain has confused some union observers.

The Labor leader paused when asked if he supported the nurses’ strike and whether they would meet their demand for a 5% above inflation wage.

“I completely understand why they ask for this – wages have been low for a long time, they work very hard, and prices are skyrocketing,” he said.

Presenter Suzanne Reid interjected: “If you came into power and were in charge of their wages, would you give that?”

“There is a mechanism in place to address their wages and I would like to see that run its course,” Starmer replied.

“The government has put us in this situation, and we need to get out of this situation. The only way to eventually get out of this situation is to deal with the cost of living crisis … we need a long-term answer to this.”

But the unions are demanding answers now.

One senior source close to teaching unions told HuffPost UK they feared Starmer’s response meant he “won’t reverse the Tory cuts”.

“This is a shame for civil servants who have worked so hard to support the country during Covid and have seen their professions destroyed and their wages cut by a fifth in real terms since 2010,” they said.

“Keir Starmer is about to win the next election by default, but many people are asking what’s the point of a Labor government if the policies are the same as the Tories?”

Election controversy

Another dispute that has caused tensions with the unions is the issue of the selection of Labor candidates for parliament.

The left suspects that a factional operation is underway to keep their supporters and unionists from shortlisting candidates. They point to recent elections in West Lancashire, Hastings and Rye, as well as Camberwell and Peckham, where they claim the left were deliberately excluded.

“There is growing alarm about this,” one union source told HuffPost UK.

“Some unions have blocked almost all of their aspiring candidates, certainly their priority candidates — some of them on false grounds. It looks like they’re making up the rules as they go along because they don’t want candidates who are strongly pro-union.”

Starmer’s assistants have categorically denied these accusations and claim that due diligence screened out candidates who were not suitable to run for parliament.

Other observers point out that there has always been a factional element in elections, and that this has been the case under past leaders, including Jeremy Corbyn and Tony Blair.

A Labor spokesman, who is sympathetic to Starmer’s project, denied that unionists were shortlisted and suggested that the left valued the support of some unions more than others.

“Starmer has every right to mold a parliamentary party in his own image,” they added.

The question for the unions is whether they have a place in Starmer’s vision.

Playing the game

Fast and violent fall of the Track as prime minister shows how a party’s fortunes can be determined by how successfully they hold warring tribes together.

Perhaps Starmer’s predicament was best summed up in RMT lighter Mick Lynchwho admitted Starmer has “game to play”.

“He has right-wing media and critics in the community who want him to stumble,” he told HuffPost UK.

“I believe that his main goal is to gain power with his party. If he does, we will advise him and tell him what to do with public transportation, what to do with wages, what to do with anti-union laws and balancing our society.

“But of course it’s all academic if he doesn’t win. He has his job and I have mine, and that’s why we respect each other.”

Starmer must now figure out how to please everyone – the most impossible task in politics – before he even sets foot in No 10.