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1 August 2022

Keir Starmer’s U-turn on picket lines shows Lisa Nandy’s strength

By visiting striking workers, the shadow levelling-up secretary has proved herself an astute political operator.

By Rachel Wearmouth

How does Keir Starmer recover his authority after the row over his ban on Labour frontbenchers joining striking workers on picket lines?

The edict, issued via the Labour leader’s office, provoked ire among trade unionists and left-wingers as workers take action to try to defend their living standards from surging inflation.

A number of frontbenchers defied Starmer. Sam Tarry, the shadow transport minister, was sacked on 27 July after he joined a rail workers’ picket line in Euston. Those close to the Labour leader emphasised that Tarry, who faces potential deselection in his Ilford South constituency, had not only joined the picket but failed to clear media interviews with Starmer’s aides, called himself “shadow transport secretary” and gave the impression that Labour supported pay rises in line with inflation.

Now Lisa Nandy, the shadow levelling-up secretary, and a much more senior member of Starmer’s team, has visited a picket line, this time that of workers from BT and Openreach who are members of the Communications Workers Union in her constituency of Wigan. An ally of Nandy said that Starmer was told in advance, adding: “She went down to show her support for constituents campaigning for better pay and conditions at a really tough time, as you’d expect.”

The decision to tolerate Nandy’s visit is effectively a U-turn by Starmer, who wrote in yesterday’s Sunday Mirror: “I completely understand why people are going on strike to secure better pay and better conditions. I support their right to do so.”

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The leader has chosen a quiet retreat over further clashes with his party’s left but it leaves those within his office, some of whom are deeply sceptical about the links between Labour and trade unions, on the opposite side of the argument. Most within the party will regard Starmer’s decision as sensible, however, given the many pay disputes that lie ahead. Centrist unions, who helped Starmer to secure the leadership and resolve their differences with him in private, are believed to have applied pressure.

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Yet the left remains angered by Starmer’s decision to abandon campaign pledges on renationalisation and it plans to disrupt Labour’s annual conference in Liverpool in September. The activist group Momentum is planning a campaign that will include a motion focusing on Labour’s stance on strikes and pay rises.

Starmer’s allies believe he welcomes the opportunity to define himself as against above-inflation pay rises, which economists have said would only make inflation worse, after he accused the Conservative leadership contenders last week of reaching for the “magic money tree” to fund tax cuts. The policy programme that shadow ministers are expected to unveil at the conference must, however, now include an olive branch for the left, not least as speculation grows that unions will cut the amount of money they give to the party. 

Starmer’s new position also leaves him open to attack when Liz Truss or Rishi Sunak is elected Conservative leader in September. The government will doubtless try to define industrial action, and the disruption it will cause, as “Labour’s strikes”.

Finally, the row has strengthened the position of Nandy, a potential future leadership contender dubbed “the shadow secretary of state for winning the election” by admirers. By allowing Labour to inch towards a new stance, while isolating Tarry for overreaching, she has once more shown herself to be indispensable to Starmer’s operation.

Nandy has supporters across all wings of the party and has astutely developed her own persona largely independent of the party’s factions. If Nandy was viewed as sackable before, she certainly is not now.

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

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