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News, gossip and insight from PoliticsHome Editor Paul Waugh

Ed's Picket Line Problem?

It looks like tomorrow's strikes will hit MPs very directly as trade unionists down tools* in the kitchens, bars and restaurants across Parliament.

In previous strikes in the Palace of Westminster (such as the postal workers' dispute), unions have tacitly helped Labour MPs to get into work by staging pickets on the main entrances but keeping open the MPs' entrance from the Tube. That is unlikely tomorrow, given the symbolic importance of the day and the coordinated action by several unions at once.

Some 300 GMB strikers in the kitchens will be joined by 480 PCS staff (plus a further 260 Commons security guards) and by Unite members too. Commons doorkeepers, those bastions of respectability, are also coming out on strike as some are PCS members.

I've talked to Keith Henderson, the GMB regional organiser for London, and he says support for the strike looks solid. But he also made plain that Labour MPs would be expected to respect the picket lines:

"We are hoping to have strong picket lines in Parliament. I wouldn't think any Labour MP would cross a genuine picket line for a legal strike.

"Any MP who has urgent business in the House, as long as they speak to the union, will be given an exemption. But the only people who can make the exemption are the union."

That poses a problem for Ed Miliband. Does 'urgent business' include PMQs, for example? Some unions may think not.

The House has very little of substance on the agenda on Wednesday in terms of legislation. There is, however, an Opposition Day debate due and it is likely to be a response to the Autumn Statement, possibly on the issue of its impact on women and families.

Labour will be arguing to the unions that it's in their members' interests to see MPs sticking it to the Government rather than being locked out of Parliament. But will Gordon Brown's adjournment debate on radiation in his constituency, for example, count as 'urgent business'?

One senior Labour source tells me: "We intend to come to work as normal."

On ITV1's Daybreak this morning, Ed M set out his latest position on Wednesday's day of action and the unions would have been pleased:

"I'm not going to condemn the strike....The disruption is terrible but I'm not going to condemn those who've taken this decision."

The Labour leader admitted that in June's stoppages, he had said the strikes were 'wrong'. But he claimed that he had now changed tack because the Coalition was trying to provoke the latest round of action. 

Yesterday, Ed surprised some when he said at a Q&A: "I don't support strikes because they are always a sign of failure." Some interpreted that as him distancing himself from the unions. But now it sounds like he's trying to square the circle: I don't support them but I don't condemn them either. 

All of this may seem like tortuous semantics but as Rachel Sylvester points out in the Times, the Shadow Cabinet spent an hour last week debating how to deal with the strikes. Those who wanted firm opposition to strikes (citing a time of economic uncertainty and ongoing negotiations) lost the argument.

Still, let's see just how many Labour MPs 'cross the line' tomorrow.

 

 

*FOOTNOTE: It looks like even Hansard staff will be downing tools (quills, perhaps?).

Commons authorities say that the places that will be closed will be: The Churchill Room, Bellamy's, Moncrieff's, the Jubilee Cafe and the 6th Floor Cafe at 7 Millbank. The places with restricted menus will be: Terrace Cafe, Members' Tea Room, Debate, Dispatch Box and the Portcullis Cafeteria at 7 Millbank.

The Members' Dining Room, where the PM chinwags with backbenchers post PMQs, is looking like it may also close. Not that David Cameron will weep many tears...

 

UPDATE: I'm told that Unite's Len McCluskey is very relaxed about Labour MPs getting into Parliament. His line to Labour MPs has been 'you can say whatever you like as long as you don't condemn the strikes'. Given that's exactly the line taken by EdM this morning, he must be a happy chap.

 

FURTHER UPDATE: Michael Fallon, Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party, has seized on the quotes above:

“This is the most shocking example yet of Labour’s subservience to the unions.

“It is an affront to our democracy when elected Labour MPs have to seek the permission of their trade union paymasters in order to enter Parliament. Does this mean that Ed Miliband will need a union permission slip to attend PMQs tomorrow?

"Never have MPs been so under the thumb of a sectional interest and never has there been a weaker leader of a British political party.”

 

UPDATE: Turns out Tony Lloyd told the PLP on Monday that unions had agreed that Labour MPs could be allowed to hold the Government to account. Former TUC chief Lord Monks also told the PLP that the TUC had made clear that Parliament should sit.

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