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.