Labour MPs are worried about what industrial action over the festive period might mean for their election chances – though not in the way one might think.
The Communication Workers Union, which represents two-thirds of Britain’s 140,000 employees, is locked in a protracted dispute with the Royal Mail, which could well result in a wave of strikes in the weeks before Christmas.
Disruptive walkouts by its union affiliates often prove a tricky sell for the Labour Party – though, under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, they have not shirked from supporting them. But it isn’t the optics that worry Corbyn’s MPs, but the logistics.
For many Labour candidates, the only campaign literature that is guaranteed to make it through every door in a constituency are the three freepost leaflets they are entitled to order from the party’s HQ. Their ability to do more depends on the strength of their activist base, which varies wildly from constituency party to constituency party.
Then there are postal votes. Given that voters casting their ballots in person on 12 December will have to do so in darkness, biting cold, or both, MPs of all stripes agree that more will opt to vote by post than usual. That means the job of ensuring those votes go into pillar boxes on time will be more important at this election than any in living memory.
Postal strikes before polling day naturally have the potential to disrupt both. The CWU leadership are undaunted, and say the election has not changed their plans. Sources at the union say they have yet to receive a complaint. But their defiance has left Labour MPs conflicted.
“It’s not ideal,” says a glum shadow cabinet minister. “But we’ve got to stand with the workers.” Says another: “I am hoping they call that strike off, to be honest with you. It is the last thing we need. And I’ll be telling them so.”
While Londoners with big constituency parties are phlegmatic – after all, their members will be able to pick up the slack – their provincial colleagues are more anxious. “Let’s hope it is settled before then,” says one MP in a Merseyside constituency. “I think they’ll be persuaded to agree to deliver those and nothing else,” jokes a neighbour. “It’d be a sort of work-to-rule for mail.”
Of course, if the strikes do go ahead, Labour will not be alone in having its campaign disrupted. But they will find the politics of this unintended consequence of a December election much trickier to manage than any other party.