Dhesi says he “definitely” did not receive memo banning frontbench from pickets

Katie Neame
© UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

Tan Dhesi has said he “definitely” did not receive a memo reportedly sent by Keir Starmer’s office ordering Labour frontbenchers not to join picket lines ahead of this week’s rail strikes.

Speaking at a Labour in Communications event today, the shadow rail minister revealed that there had been messages among Labour MPs debating whether joining strikers was “falling into the Tory trap”.

Dhesi noted reports of “some sort of edict or memo going around from the Leader’s office telling all MPs or frontbenchers” not to attend any pickets. He stressed: “If that’s the case, I definitely haven’t received one.”

The Labour frontbencher said: “The issue about picket lines – I think the reason why there was discussion amongst Labour MPs on these various groups and there was a feeling amongst some that ‘Look, we shouldn’t be falling into the Tory trap’.

“And this is what they’re going to do is they’re going to try to create this whole chaos and anarchy, which will hurt the British public, but they’re trying to have something which will benefit the Tory party.

“So if they could get loads of pictures of Labour MPs on picket lines, and they could then classify that as ‘Oh, look, these strikes are happening because of Labour. They’ve caused these strikes. And look, we the Tory party, are on the side of the British public’ and so on.”

Dhesi added: “Had there been been an edict, I don’t think you would have seen so many frontbenchers or indeed the leader of the Scottish Labour Party [on picket lines].” He also highlighted deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner’s tweet saying workers had “been left with no choice”.

The Labour MP stressed: “We need to make sure that everybody has a right to join a union. Everybody has a right to engage in strike if they so wish, to withdraw their labour. We’re not living in some sort of tin-pot dictatorship. We’re not living in Russia, where the government can try to force through this.

“And by the way, be under no illusion, this is exactly what the Tories will now try to do. So they will, because of the division, because of the inconvenience that will be caused to people, they will try to use that as an excuse to further water down trade union laws.”

He rejected ministers’ claim that the government is just a “shareholder” in the railways and that it is up to Network Rail and the operators to negotiate with the unions, arguing that shareholders “if they’re silent, they stay silent”.

“What the likes of Grant Shapps and others have been doing – they’ve not been missing one opportunity to engage in union-bashing, or to try and say that these are “Labour strikes”. In fact, what we’ve been terming them as is ‘Tory rail strikes’,” the Labour frontbencher said.

He argued that the Tories were using the debate around picket lines to distract attention from ‘partygate’, Boris Johnson’s “continual pathological lying and law-breaking” and the government’s “general incompetence”.

Dhesi said: “They don’t want people to be talking about ‘Backlog Britain’, where people now have to spend not weeks but months on end even to get a passport.

“They don’t want the public to be talking about the cost-of-living crisis. They wanted to create an issue, which would divide the British public, and they’re trying to pit Labour as ‘Oh look they’re just on the side of unions. They’re anti-British public’.”

The event was hosted by Labour in Communications. On Friday, the group will be speaking to Labour peer and former Home Secretary Lord Blunkett. Interviewees in July include Abena Oppong-Asare and Fabian Hamilton.

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