Dear Tristram, why we don’t cross picket lines…

11th February, 2014 2:21 pm

Dear Tristram,

I’m saddened to have to write to you like this. Truth be told I’ve been quite impressed with the work you’ve been doing as Shadow Education Secretary so far. You’ve managed to walk the narrow tightrope between educational reform and stability in the classroom, between the need for greater devolution of power in our schools and the importance of high standards. You’ve taken on Michael Gove with aplomb, and you’re also one of the most interesting and persuasive people in the party on the subject of One Nation.

Yet I’m afraid I’m not writing to you this afternoon to praise you. Quite the opposite.

You see, I’ve just heard that you crossed a picket line to give a lecture during a strike at Queen Mary University.

Because I’ve been impressed with your work as Shadow Education Secretary, I hoped there was some mistake. Alas not. Here’s what you’ve said about the strike:

“I support the right to strike for those who have balloted to picket.”

“I have chosen not to join the strike. My personal commitment remains to the students I am lecturing.”

I’m afraid that rather misses the point though Tristram. We shouldn’t cross picket lines in the Labour Party. It should go against what we stand for as a movement.

When you cross a picket line and give a lecture whilst staff are on strike, you undermine those who are taking industrial action. When you cross a picket line and go to work whilst others – for whom this is their full time job – forgo their wages and withdraw their labour, you have, whether you like it or not, damaged their ability to negotiate with your employers.

And whilst I appreciate that you have made a commitment to your students, you’ve also made a commitment to the Labour Party – an organisation founded by and rooted in organised labour.


You also suggest that you’ve not been balloted, and I understand you are not a member of the UCU (and are therefore not bound by the collective action of the strike). Surely a Labour Shadow Cabinet member – especially one as smart as yourself – would not be foolish enough to work as a lecturer without being a member of a recognised union? So which union are you a member of? And what was their position on the strike?

And besides that – do you honestly believe that crossing a picket line is without consequence because you’re not a union member? I’m not a member of the TSSA or the RMT (indeed I can’t tell one end of a train from another) and yet I walked, used buses and caught trains last week to avoid crossing a picket line and using the tube. I did so not because it was convenient for me – quite the opposite – but out of basic solidarity with other working people. Yet you have not afforded that same solidarity to those who have the same employer as you.

That said, there are times when an elected Labour Party representative might be justified in crossing a picket line. Some Tory councils have tried to force through votes in the council chamber whilst town hall workers were on strike, daring Labour councillors to stay away. In that situation, I would cross a picket line, and I’d accept it if you did too Tristram. Similarly in 2011, workers on the parliamentary estate were on strike, yet Labour MPs went to speak in the chamber. Many of them took the opportunity to speak up for those who were on strike. In that situation, I would cross a picket line, and I’d accept it if you did too Tristram. But what I wouldn’t do – in any circumstances – is cross a picket line to give a lecture on Marx, Engels and the Making of Marxism during a strike by staff at a University (and not just because of my frankly underwhelming abilities as a political theorist). Could this undergraduate lecture not have been rescheduled to avoid clashing with the strike day? (you only give a handful of lectures a year after all). Was it really so important to do so at a time that would be so damaging for your fellow lecturers? I can’t imagine that’s the case.

In 15 months time, I hope there will be a Labour government. I hope too that you will be in the Cabinet. I think you’ve got all the qualities required to go to the very top. But crossing that picket line suggests a tin ear to the feelings and concerns of so many at Labour’s grassroots. Indeed one of the loudest cheers heard at Labour conference last year was when General Secretary Iain McNicol said he’d never crossed a picket line and never will.

Notions of solidarity might seem terribly old fashioned Tristram, but they’re part of the traditions and history of the Labour Party. As a historian, you know how important and powerful tradition can be.

Kinds regards,


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  • Doug Smith

    Why shouldn’t Tristam cross a picket line?

    Miliband and the Labour elite showed their contempt for trade unionism at Falkirk.
    Tristam is only guilty of consistency.

    • treborc1


      Labour MPs will be expected to cross picket lines during Thursday’s public sector strike, the party has said.

      A spokesman for leader Ed Miliband said Labour MPs would
      “come to work as normal” in Parliament despite a pension strike
      affecting up to 750,000 workers.

      David Cameron taunted the Labour leader over the issue in the
      Commons, saying he could not raise it as he was “in the pocket of the

      Mr Miliband has criticised the strike but did not mention it at PMQs.

      Says it all really

  • Steve38

    Typical of today’s Labour party. Trade unionism is a problem, something to be distanced from, something to be controlled, a malign power in society. Why oh why do the trade unions keep funding this failed party?

  • Daniel Speight

    Why the surprise? This public school Mandelson acolyte shoehorned into a safe seat behaves like what he is.

    • treborc1

      How about Miliband who crossed the DWP strike, and told his MP’s to do the same.

      But what do you expect when your trying to prove to the Tories your conservative, not labour.

      Then again since you have never worked in the real world you really have difficulty knowing how to act.

  • Socialismo

    Indeed. If Labour has no solidarity with unions, what is it for? Labour is of workers and for workers and so are unions: even if we are not beholden to them, we must think carefully before dismissing them so casually.

    • Doug Smith

      “Labour is of workers and for workers”

      You’re having a laugh.

      • Socialismo

        You’re right, but you know, I can dream.

        • treborc1

          Dream or nightmare.

  • Jack Fate

    good letter. hope he replies

  • Colin McCulloch

    Well said Mark.

  • Pingback: Picket Lines: A Labour party peculiarity | Hopi Sen()

  • jaime taurosangastre candelas

    That is a very well argued piece Mark. I am not persuaded, but it is because I believe a higher duty is to the students, than his duty of solidarity to his colleagues. But it will be for many very persuasive.

    I hope he writes a response for you.

    Tristram Hunt is a member of Unity the Union (not the similar Unite) according to their website. This raises for me an interesting question: is a member of one union (it seems completely uninvolved in this strike) under any obligation to any other union that is on strike?

    The UCU say they have a membership of 116,000, and on their website the results of the strike ballot were 12,750 in favour of striking***, a majority of those returning ballots, but a small fraction of those polled. I think the principles you argue very we above do break down when the numbers in favour of strike action are so low.

    *** it must have been only a partial poll or not a national action, as the 20,000 who returned ballots is stated as 35% turnout.

    • robertcp

      The TUC’s position is that trade union members should not undermine the strike of another trade union but they should do their own job. The reason for this is that workers could be sacked if they strike without the protection of a legal ballot but this rarely, if ever, happens in practice. This clearly does not apply to Hunt in any case.

  • Ben Cobley

    How does this argument work with ASLEF? They didn’t strike on the day the RMT and TSSA did on the tube, so are they all a bunch of scabs?

    • Graham Day

      Any evidence of ASLEF members crossing RMT/TSSA picket lines?

      No, thought not.

      • Ben Cobley

        They went to work when their colleagues were on strike, so I don’t see how which door they went in matters. How about an answer to the question? (I’m genuinely interested)

        • robertcp

          They are not scabs so long as they only do their job and not the job of someone who is on strike.

          • Ben Cobley

            If that’s the case then what’s the whole fuss about Tristram Hunt about? He wasn’t covering anyone.

          • Danny

            Hmmm, I don’t know, solidarity? Tristram Hunt is not just a lecturer, he is a Shadow Cabinet member of the Labour Party. I was suffering under the illusion that that meant something and that holding such a privileged position came with certain responsibilities.

            “Fear the time when the strikes stop while the great owners live – for every little beaten strike is proof that the step is being taken … fear the time when Manself will not suffer and die for a concept, for this one quality is the foundation of Manself, and this one quality is man, distinctive in the universe.”

            I can’t see Grapes of Wrath entering the curriculum post-2015 with that wretched politician as Education Secretary. A typical careerist.

          • jaime taurosangastre candelas

            “Solidarity”? An interesting concept in this discussion. I have no doubt of the power of solidarity as an emotional concept, but in this case, both you and Mark refer to it as something close to an absolute purity, but in fact only 12,754 members of the UCU actually positively voted for strike action, considerably less than those who positively voted to reject strike action and those who had not enough passion or decision to vote at all.

            Who has the burden of proving solidarity, a fellow member of the union, or someone not in the union, or even balloted? Most members of the UCU did not vote for a strike at all.

          • rekrab

            I’m thinking Solidarity is a unity of strength, not an object to be proven.

            Where the hell was your solidarity for Alexander Blackman?

          • Danny

            You seen to be clinging rather desperately to the turnout of the ballot to fuel your disclosed anti-union agenda. Do you hold similar concerns with the authority of your local Councillors and Police Commissioners? Or even the London Mayor, which had a turn out of less than 40%?

            However, these things are different from the strike, because despite the turnout being low, how many UCU members participated in the strike and withdrew their labour, sacrificing a day’s pay? The vast majority. What more proof of solidarity do you, or Tristram Hunt, require? They may not have voted, but they stayed at home. Does that suggest they were behind the strike or opposed to it? Does that suggest solidarity or disunity? If a day’s pay is nothing to you then I pray you don’t forget how lucky you are, but for the majority of people in the current climate, losing a day’s pay is a big blow. Yet it seems most of the UCU members were happy to forgo it in pursuit of the aims of the strike.

            Unless you are happy with the situation in universitys and colleges currently, whereby Vice Chancellors, already the highest paid position at a university, are awarded five-figure payrises whilst the university cleaners, lecturers, security, catering staff and technicians enjoy increments below the increase in cost of living for several consecutive years?

            You see, Tristram Hunt’s actions can only lead me towards that conclusion. And considering he is one of the most senior Labour politicians, it serves as a chilling pointer of where the party is headed.

          • robertcp

            I agree that the fuss is excessive but he should have realised that lecturing on the day of a strike was not a good idea. Labour politicians are supposed to be part of the labour movement.

          • MrSauce

            The ‘strike’ was only called because he was due to lecture that day.

          • Doug Smith

            A national strike was called to provide Hunt with an opportunity to cross a picket line?!

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  • Alexwilliamz

    Not a member of UCU so I recognise his choice to not strike. However his use of words is unfortunate as the statement “My personal commitment remains to the students I am lecturing.” implies that those striking don’t hold his own strong commitment to the students. That quite frankly is offensive and I am hoping in the wider statement the statement is qualified.

    • Danny

      The only statement I would welcome from Tristram Hunt would be thus…

      “Dear Mr Milliband,

      Please consider this letter my formal resignation. I have been offered a directorship at Tony Blair’s company, which I’ll think you agree is a far more lucrative proposition than being Education Secretary. But what about the opportunity to really make a difference, you may ask? I was never really that bothered about all that, I just got into politics because I could. Having a Dad who was bestowed a peerage by Tony Blair has its uses you know. If I do fancy a return to politics, don’t worry, I kept the parachute I used to drop into Stoke-on-Trent in 2010, I can use that again, though I’d prefer a safe seat somewhere a bit nearer London next time. Far too many plebs up there for my liking, it would only have been a matter of time before one of those grubby benefits claimants stole the silver spoon from my rectum. It’s a real shame that I cannot stick around to lobby you to bring back admission fees for museums, as a historian myself, I do so enjoy strolling around museums that are quieter and not besmirched by peasants. What do they care about history anyway? Shouldn’t they be catching up on the latest Jeremy Kyle?

      Anyway, must dash, I’ve a boat trip with Peter Mandleson to pack for.

      Toodle pip.

      Tristram Hunt.

      P.S. If you do get in, could you ensure that there is a strong emphasis placed on spelling in schools? I’ve noticed a worrying trend lately of people mis-spelling my surname.”

  • Simon Redfern

    Dear Mark

    Interesting take. It does pose a problem which I suspect many people in the party have faced. We organised an event in Walthamstow a few years back; a CLP fund-raiser with Caroline Flint. We were holding the event in a college which was being catered for by young students doing their city and guilds in catering. Our event effectively formed part of their coursework. On the day of the event, when all the students had been briefed, the food ordered etc, we were told that the UCU were striking at the college and we were not to attend.

    We agonised over what to do – cross a pretty much unmanned picket line (that suddenly seemed to grow in size when news that a shadow minister was attending the event) – or disappoint students who had worked their socks off.

    In the end we all opted not to cross the picket line. Because Caroline is a great MP we were able to reconvene in a local Indian restaurant and salvage something of the evening. But it left a very bad taste for all concerned, that a non-affiliated union could wreck a terrific event, supporting young people and our party. And to what end? Very little as far as I could see – if the Union had been prepared to work with us we could have advocated for them very strongly.



    • Danny

      How incredibly selfish of the union. Could they not have put their problems on the back burner for the sake of those unfortunate catering students?

      And what, pray tell, does the fact that it was un-affiliated have to do with it? Unions are to represent the best interests of their members, working people. It is becoming increasingly more obvious that Labour don’t give a flying f*** about working people anymore, so it’s difficult to marry affiliation to a big-business courting establishment with the goal of an improved lot for workers.

      So you’d have advocated the Union had they worked with you?! How very selfless! Would the reasons for the strike have suddenly become more honourable had the union liaised with you?

      And as for your Indian restaurant, if only Caroline Flint had her way you could have secretly claimed it back as expenses, which she voted in favour of keeping secret. You have a very different idea of what makes a great MP to me, good sir.

  • roma1950

    i would never cross a picket line.perhaps he should cross the floor,and join the tories.

  • MrSauce

    The so-called strike was called to deliberately coincide with Mr Hunt’s lecture visit.
    The purpose of the ‘strike’ was to raise publicity by causing problems for this MP.
    Why on earth should he pander to their petty behaviour?
    Well done Mr Hunt, you have risen above the union’s childish petulance.
    You have gone up in my estimation.

    • robertcp

      Any chance of you voting Labour due to your esteem for Brother Hunt?

  • adelepaul

    The picket line outside Hammersmith Hospital once had to be very firm with me & insist as a group that I cross their line in order to have some stitches removed. What doesn’t Tristram Hunt understand?

    • Doug Smith

      He’s a member of the LibLabCon. It’s as simple as that.

  • Pingback: Tristram Hunt, strikebreaker | dropitintheocean()

  • David Pavett

    I agree with all this – except the bit about Tristram Hunt putting in a good performance as Shadow Secretary of State for Education. I thought that Twigg was bad enough but Hunt is worse. He diverts attention from the massive changes made by Gove by talking about the quality of teachers as being the ultimate determinant of school performance. In other words he will leave the Gove reforms pretty much intact. Moreover he frequently ill-judged interventions in the Commons only to get slapped down by Gove.

    It speaks volumes that someone who has made a name for himself speaking about the traditions of self-help and mutuality of the 19th century working class does not even join the union of a place where he is a part-time lecturer. What can one say?

  • Eva

    That is so petty in the scheme of things. Really.


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