Fri, 19 July 2024

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By Ben Guerin
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Senior Labour MPs Warn Joining Picket Lines Despite Ban Is A "Tory Trap"

4 min read

Labour shadow ministers have doubled down on Keir Starmer's order that senior MPs stay away from picket lines this week, as the party's chief whip prepares to discipline a number of front benchers who have defied the leadership.

Several members of Labour's front bench joined picket lines on Tuesday during the UK’s biggest rail strike in decades in defiance of the controversial directive not to

But a majority of shadow ministers who PoliticsHome spoke to said they supported the party leadership's position against appearing alongside strikers, arguing that doing so would help the government in its attempt to frame the industrial action as the fault of Labour, not the Conservatives.

The government continues to refuse to enter pay negotiations with unions. Cabinet members and Conservative MPs have tried to avoid being blamed for severe disruption to rail services this week by repeatedly describing the industrial action as "Labour strikes".

The government was this morning keen to seize on divisions within Labour in light of the Labour MPs in the shadow team who defied Starmer to join picket lines. A government source said it showed an "embarrassing breakdown of shadow cabinet discipline".

Navendu Mishra, a Labour whip, tweeted a picture of himself alongside strikers this morning. Paula Barker and Kate Osborne, who are parliamentary private secretaries [PPS] to shadow cabinet ministers John Healey and Peter Kyle respectively, have also defied the Labour leadership.

Labour's chief whip will decide how to discipline those shadow front benchers who defy the leadership once the industrial action is over later this week, PoliticsHome understands.

One shadow minister said the industrial action by members of the Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers Union (RMT) was a "wedge issue being used politically" by Downing Street and that Starmer was right to instruct shadow ministers to stay away from picket lines.

"It’s incumbent on ministers to sit down with the unions and employers to broker a resolution. Keir gets the politics of this fully and he’s not letting us fall into the Tory trap," they said.

Another shadow minister agreed, arguing that Labour front benchers being seen on picket lines would "blow apart" the party's position on the ongoing standoff between the RMT, Network Rail and the government over worker pay and conditions.

"The settled position of LOTO – and therefore of our entire front bench – is that we do not want these strikes to be happening at all because we want to see compromise on all sides leading to a negotiated settlement.

"That position would be completely blown apart by front benchers appearing on picket lines," they said.

One shadow minister said they were "angry and frustrated" by the leadership's decision, however.

"Strike action is always the last resort and we should be supporting those frontline workers who deserve more than is being offered from their employers and the government.

"We should wholeheartedly support them," they told PoliticsHome.

The row has started within Labour after PoliticsHome reported on Monday night that Starmer's office had told shadow ministers to stay away from picket lines.

A leaked email said: "We have robust lines. We do not want to see these strikes to go ahead with the resulting disruption to the public. The government have failed to engage in any negotiations.

"However, we also must show leadership and to that end, please be reminded that front benchers including PPSs [parliamentary private secretaries] should not be on picket lines.

“Please speak to all the members of your team to remind them of this and confirm with me that you have done so.”

A serving Labour PPS admitted that the nationwide strikes had put Labour in a tricky "catch-22" position, but said Starmer's position ultimately was the correct one.

"If everyone joins a picket then it feeds into the Tory line, if no one joins it then you piss off the union. You’re stuck between a rock and a hard place," they told PoliticsHome.

"I would normally say it would be right for the front bench to join the pickets, however, in this instance because of the number one attack line from the Tories, it’s right not to be there."

Andy Burnham, the Labour Mayor of Greater Manchester who is often talked up as a future party leader, dodged the question over whether senior MPs should join pickets on Tuesday. Asked about Starmer's instruction at an event hosted by the Institute for Government think tank, he said: "I'm going to leave that one."

A Labour spokesperson said: "Unlike the government, our focus is firmly on the public.

"The Tories are in charge, and they failed to fix it. The responsibility for this week’s chaos lies firmly with them. Boris Johnson and Grant Shapps must U-turn on their refusal to even meet with Network Rail and the RMT to urgently find a solution."

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