Keir Starmer faces Labour backlash over rail strikes

Sam Tarry (right) joins RMT union members on the picket line outside Euston Station in London - Wiktor Szymanowicz /Shutterstock
Sam Tarry (right) joins RMT union members on the picket line outside Euston Station in London - Wiktor Szymanowicz /Shutterstock

Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, faces a row over rail strikes among his top team after launching disciplinary action against a frontbencher who joined RMT members on a picket line on Wednesday.

The shadow cabinet is understood to be split over Sir Keir’s decision not to back Wednesday’s strikes, with some urging him to sack Sam Tarry, the shadow transport minister who picketed with trade unionists at Euston station.

But others think Labour should support striking workers during a “summer of discontent” of industrial action across the public sector.

Mick Lynch, the general secretary of the RMT union, accused Sir Keir of abandoning working class voters and getting in a “pickle” over the strikes, which forced the closure of much of the UK’s rail services.

“Most of the MPs in the Labour Party want to support us instinctively and naturally because they are from the trade union movement, every one of them,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

He added that Sir Keir should “work out a set of principles and policies that appeal to working class people in all those communities that the Labour Party lost at the last election”.

Mr Tarry defended his decision to join workers on the picket line and insisted he had not defied a specific order by Sir Keir.

“I have absolutely 100 per cent confidence that any Labour Party MP would be in support of striking workers who have given up a day’s pay, a week’s pay or even longer,” he said.

He told Sky News he was “not defying anybody” but was supporting "40,000 low-paid transport workers".

Anneliese Dodds, the Labour chairman, said Mr Tarry would face an investigation by the party whips for insubordination, adding: “Ultimately it’s a matter for that individual, but I am sure that the whips will be looking at this in terms of it being a disciplinary matter.”

One shadow cabinet source said Mr Tarry was hoping to be sacked from the front bench in an attempt to shore up support among hard-Left Labour members in his constituency of Ilford South, where he is facing deselection ahead of the next election.

“The fact that Sam has turned up on a picket line just days after being triggered for full re-selection tells its own story,” the source said.“It’s a pathetic attempt to get sacked so he can buy the sympathy of his local party who are fed up with having such a useless and absentee MP.”

But an ally of Mr Tarry said there had been no specific order to shadow ministers not to join the strikes, as there was during last month’s industrial action.

“It’s very different from last time. At the RMT picket line last month, an edict went round to the shadow secretaries of state. That didn’t happen this time,” the ally said.

“There was no edict this time informing front bench members not to appear on the picket line. Therefore the assumption was that it was left up to shadow ministers’ discretion.”

A spokesman for Mr Tarry denied that he hoped to be sacked for joining picketers.

Kim Leadbeater, a Labour backbencher, said: “I don’t think there should be any action taken against them at all. They’re not going out on picket lines to cause trouble, they’re going out on pocket lines to show their support for the workers – and I think it’s their right to do that.”

At least one shadow cabinet minister is understood to have told Sir Keir that Labour should actively support the strikes.

“There is going to be a whole summer of discontent, with doctors, nurses and others striking,” said one source with knowledge of Labour’s internal discussions. “Is the party going to tell MPs they can’t go on the picket lines? We are creating a rod for our own backs.”

Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader, who is in a relationship with Mr Tarry, has not joined striking workers on the picket line but tweeted her support for them.

“Labour will always defend the right of working people to organise and withdraw their labour – to stand up for services, public safety, defend jobs and pay,” she wrote.