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If Keir Starmer doesn't understand solidarity, he's not worthy of leading our party

4 min read

I’ve been in the Labour Party long enough to know that you don’t always see eye to eye with party leaders or agree with every dot and comma of policy. But recent weeks have tested the Labour-union link to extremes. Our TSSA activists are angry – and wonder whether Labour understands the needs of people just like them.

Last month, Labour front benchers were told they couldn’t attend picket lines as rail workers took industrial action. Just days later, shadow foreign secretary David Lammy condemned on live national television British Airways workers for trying to claw back money cut from their paypackets during the pandemic. And while the whips decided not to discipline those front bench MPs who did show solidarity with rail workers, and David Lammy "clarified" that he "hadn’t heard the question" correctly, relations with unions took a hit.

On Monday of this week, Labour’s shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves said on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that Labour is not committed to public ownership of rail because it “doesn’t fit our fiscal rules”. This despite it clearly being in the latest version of policy papers and despite assurances from across the party that it is indeed Labour’s policy position. After a furore, it was "clarified" that Reeves hadn’t heard the part about rail in the presenter’s question (which also referred to pledges made by Labour leader Keir Starmer regarding energy, water and Royal Mail public ownership when he stood for the post).

Just hours later, in response to a question following a speech by Keir Starmer, the Labour leader “indicated he no longer favours renationalising rail companies”. And you have probably guessed it by now, after a further round of "clarifications", public ownership of rail – a move supported by two thirds of the public in recent polling – remained Labour policy, as it has been for years!

As a Labour-affiliated union, our union is ashamed of the actions of the Labour Party leadership

We’ve hit a new low. Yesterday, Labour sacked my comrade Sam Tarry MP from the shadow transport team. A role that Sam – as a former political officer of our union – was superbly qualified for. And a role he was executing with success.

Sam’s crime was attending our TSSA picket line at Euston station and doing media interviews in support of striking rail workers – putting the blame rightly on the Tory government.

Sam is one of us. He grew up in the trade union movement and trade unionism is in his blood. He served as TSSA’s political officer for around a decade before being elected to parliament in 2019. He understands transport workers and he understands trade unionism.

Sam did the right thing and stood shoulder-to-shoulder with rail workers striking for fairness and safety at work.

Labour has now turned a rail dispute into an internal Labour crisis. We have a trade dispute with employers where we are seeking job security and a pay rise for rail workers – many of whom are low-paid and suffering hugely in the teeth of the Tory cost of living crisis and rampant inflation. We expect solidarity and support from our Labour Party on these bread and butter issues.

Quite honestly, we expect attacks from the Tories – we get them by the barrel from Grant Shapps and his cronies. We don’t expect attacks from our own party.

As a Labour-affiliated union, our union is ashamed of the actions of the Labour Party leadership and the anti-worker anti-union message it is sending out. Labour ought to reflect that the clue is in its name – this is the party of the workers, and working people rightly expect its solidarity and support.

Whatever excuses the Labour Party makes about the reasons for Sam being sacked, the reality is that Sam has shown solidarity with his class and we applaud him for that. He stood on our picket line and he stuck it to the Tories on national media. Good for him.

This is a bad time for our movement. If the Labour leadership thinks the party can win the next general election while pushing away seven million trade union members, it is deluded. Even more so when the Tory cost of living is causing huge pain to working people across our country. This is the cut-through issue. 

Labour should really be nailing the Tories over it by supporting workers demanding that their purchasing power is not further eroded by inflation. And yes, that means supporting those workers who go on strike seeking pay increases that match inflation.

If Keir Starmer doesn't understand the basic concept of solidarity on which our movement has been built, he is not worthy of leading our party.

Manuel Cortes is general secretary of the Labour-affiliated transport union TSSA.

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