Banning frontbenchers from pickets may harm Labour’s relationship with unions

Katie Neame
© Mark D Bailey/
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“It’s not just a shame. It’s a huge historic amnesia.” That was what Barry Gardiner said to me when we spoke about Labour’s current relationship with the unions back in April. He stressed the need for the party to “understand our roots” and “understand why some unions feel that as a party we’re no longer expressing their voice in the way that they feel we should be”. It was revealed yesterday that Labour frontbenchers had been told by the leader’s office that they should not join picket lines just as strikes by the rail, maritime and transport workers’ union (RMT) kicked off.

The pushback from within the party and the wider labour movement was immediate. Unite general secretary Sharon Graham accused Keir Starmer of “hiding” and demanded he decide whose side he is on, “workers or bad bosses”. ASLEF general secretary Mick Whelan tweeted: “If it’s true, a bloody disgrace.” Frontbencher Kate Osborne –  who is parliamentary private secretary to Peter Kyle, the Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary – tweeted: “Come what may, I will be on a picket line supporting workers tomorrow.” This morning, she shared a photograph from a picket line in Bromley, saying: “I’m a trade unionist, I will always stand on the side of the workers.”

Pat McFadden tip-toed carefully around the subject on the broadcast round this morning. The Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury told Sky News that joining a picket line was “not something I’ll be doing today” and that he was instead focusing on using every available opportunity to “urge a negotiated settlement”. On Labour frontbenchers joining strikers, McFadden said: “I don’t think that’s the way this will be resolved.” Asked whether he expected Osborne to be disciplined by the Labour leader, he added: “That’s a matter for the whips and Keir Starmer.” Complicating matters somewhat, Labour whip Navendu Mishra has since tweeted a photograph of himself on a picket line.

Gardiner stressed to me in April that he wanted to see “greater respect and understanding being paid to extra-parliamentary struggle”, specifically the unions. “And understanding that, when unions ballot and go on strike, they do so to protect people. They don’t do so to disrupt others’ lives.” What may have been an attempt by the leadership to avoid controversy in a week of two by-elections has done anything but. That two frontbenchers have already publicly defied orders is embarrassing. And the decision could also have longer-term consequences for the party’s already rocky relationship with the unions.

Alison McGovern has declared that it is time to “debunk Boris Johnson’s big jobs lie”. Writing exclusively for LabourList this morning, the shadow minister for employment told readers: “We all know that Johnson can’t be trusted, but it’s increasingly clear that he’ll blithely tell you that up is down – and hope you won’t notice.” Read the full piece here.

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