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27 July 2022

Keir Starmer’s sacking of Sam Tarry threatens a new Labour civil war

The Labour leader’s decision to fire the shadow transport minister for joining a rail picket line has enraged trade unions and the left of the party.

By Rachel Wearmouth

Keir Starmer has opened up a fresh battle with Labour’s left wing after sacking a shadow transport minister for joining striking rail workers on a picket line.

Starmer chose to act after Sam Tarry defied his warning that “a government doesn’t go on picket lines” and his decision last month to ban frontbenchers from the activity.

Tarry, who faces a major deselection threat from members in his Ilford South constituency, drew ire from the leader’s office when he gave a series of broadcast interviews alongside striking workers in Euston, this morning (27 July). The Rail, Marine and Transport Workers (RMT) union is on strike over pay after negotiations broke down after towering inflation looks on the verge of forcing workers into a real-terms pay cut.

Confirming Tarry would be sacked as a result of the row, a Labour spokesperson said this afternoon: “This isn’t about appearing on a picket line. Members of the front bench sign up to collective responsibility. That includes media appearances being approved and speaking to agreed front-bench positions. As a government in waiting, any breach of collective responsibility is taken extremely seriously and for these reasons Sam Tarry has been removed from the front bench.”

Tarry, who previously worked for the transport union Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association (TSSA), was unapologetic, saying he had been “proud to stand with these striking rail workers on the picket line in the face of relentless attacks by this Tory government”. He claimed that “this dispute would not be taking place under a Labour government” and said he would “fight relentlessly” for the party from the backbenches. But he warned that he had taken phone calls from seven trade union general secretaries who were “absolutely fuming” about his sacking and were now on a “direct collision course with the Labour Party”.

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This is the latest in a series of conflicts Starmer has had with his party’s left wing, and comes as the UK prepares for a summer of industrial discontent. Rail staff are planning further walkouts, and unions representing many other workers, including nurses and teachers, could follow as the cost-of-living crisis intensifies (inflation is due to peak at 11 per cent later this year).

[See also: Has Keir Starmer let ordinary workers down?]

By taking a hard-line stance, Starmer may struggle to maintain discipline as other Labour frontbenchers may support unions fighting for higher pay. Some on the left believe that by sacking Tarry, Starmer has left himself open to accusations of hypocrisy if he fails to punish other frontbenchers who reject his orders.

It is also not the first clash between Tarry and Starmer’s office. The Ilford South constituency Labour party has voted to “trigger” Tarry, meaning he will face a contest with other would-be MPs in order to remain the party’s parliamentary candidate. Labour’s local right wing has long been pushing to oust Tarry in favour of the Redbridge Council leader Jas Athwal.

Tarry claims to have evidence that “rule-breaking” and “voter fraud” took place during the process to potentially oust him. Many left-wing unions, including the RMT and the TSSA, may rally to Tarry’s cause.

The Unite general secretary Sharon Graham called Starmer’s actions “another insult to the trade union movement”. But how other key unions, such as Unison, Community and Usdaw, react will be a critical question for Starmer. Centrist trade unions are the leader’s power base but, as their members also face real-terms pay cuts, Starmer could quickly find himself short of allies.

The issue could also divide the shadow cabinet, with Ed Miliband and Louise Haigh, who as the shadow transport secretary was Tarry’s boss, having made clear their support for him over the deselection threat.

The spectacle of Conservative leadership candidates denouncing each other over the past month has been a political gift for Labour. But the danger for Starmer is that his party appears no less divided.

[See also: If the Tory leadership race produces an Asian Prime Minister, we might have something to celebrate]

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