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22 June 2022

Labour is divided over the rail strikes as its MPs defy Keir Starmer

The party is trying to address the cost-of-living crisis without appearing to side with the trade unions.

By Freddie Hayward

At least four members of Labour’s senior team joined railway workers on the picket line yesterday despite Keir Starmer explicitly telling them not to do so. Alongside numerous back-bench MPs from the left of the party, those who defied Starmer’s directive included a party whip and a shadow minister. Anas Sarwar, the party’s leader in Scotland, also popped up on the picket. I’m told Labour’s chief whip will decide their punishment once the industrial action is over. 

It was the first sign that the railway strikes – and the strikes to come – could inflame divisions within the party and test Starmer’s authority. “Ultimately unity is something that’s set from the top,” one Labour MP pointedly put it to me yesterday. “And I think Anas Sawar showed real leadership today.” There’s no reason to expect that Starmer will hesitate in maintaining his grip on the party. Nonetheless, growing calls within Labour for a stronger line on the strikes throws up a potential problem for the leader. As Andrew Marr puts it in his urgent column this week, the strikes “will subject the Labour Party to its own summer of misery and political torture”.

Labour is trying to balance the cost-of-living crisis on the one hand – in recognising that people need more money as prices rise – with not siding with the unions on the other. That leads to cautious, some might say unclear, language, arguing the strikes should not go ahead while sympathising with the railway workers.

The latest polling on the strikes suggests the public share this distinction. While a Savanta ComRes poll shows a majority of people (58 per cent) think the strikes are justified, a YouGov poll shows more people (45 per cent) oppose the strikes than support them (37 per cent). How does that work? One explanation is that people think it’s justified to ask for more money as prices rise in general, but few support the reality of the trains not working.

That distinction may blur over the summer. Nurses, teachers and other public-sector workers due to vote on strike action will be harder to cast as well-paid, ungrateful, far-left rabble rousers. Indeed, as our chart of the day shows, public sector wages are 4.4 per cent lower in real terms than they were in 2010. The support for the public sector built up over the pandemic combined with personal struggles to pay the bills may mean voters are more sympathetic towards those fighting a real-terms pay cut.

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As for the Conservatives, Grant Shapps’s gleeful performance in the Commons on Monday, goading the Labour front bench to condemn the strikes, suggests that the government is relishing the opportunity to talk about something other than partygate. The government can sense an opportunity to capitalise on Labour’s division. As Marr argues: “Members of the shadow cabinet have been twisting and turning in their efforts to avoid Johnson ‘getting’ them on Europe and it has been a dismal sight. But now it’s ‘Labour’s train strikes’.” Wresting the narrative from the Tories and keeping an eye on the potential for further strikes will be Labour’s problem going forward. And on the disgruntlement within the party, Labour’s performance in the Tiverton and Honiton, and Wakefield by-elections tomorrow will be key to whether disunity recedes into the background or dominates the party once again.

[See also: Is Keir Starmer bold enough to succeed?]

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