David Lammy prompted a fresh row between Labour and the unions yesterday. As the Shadow Foreign Secretary discussed the railway strikes involving RMT members last week on the Sunday politics shows, he reminded viewers that the union led by Mick Lynch is not affiliated to the Labour Party. He said the opposition party is “concerned for working people’s interests”, including both those within the rail sector who have gone on strike and those who rely on the railways to get to work.
But – after a week that saw much discussion over Keir Starmer’s instruction for Labour frontbenchers not to join the strikers – Lammy also insisted that a “serious party of government does not join picket lines”. According to the Shadow Foreign Secretary, this applies to both RMT and other workers going on strike. Asked whether he supports British Airways check-in staff and Unite members who voted to go on strike over management’s refusal to reverse a 10% pay cut imposed during the pandemic, Lammy said: “No, I don’t. It’s a no. It’s a categorical no.” Asked why, he argued: “Because I’m serious about the business of being in government, and the business of being in government is that you support negotiation.”
Unite general secretary Sharon Graham hit back yesterday afternoon, accusing Lammy of launching a “direct attack” on a group of workers who were “savagely attacked” by their bosses during Covid. Lammy had described the demand from the BA workers as one for a “pay rise” – Graham said the staff were not looking for a pay increase but the restoration of wages taken from them during the pandemic. “Supporting bad bosses is a new low for Labour and once again shows that politicians have failed. It is now down to the trade unions to defend working people,” she said. “We are their only voice.”
While the RMT industrial action has not been plain sailing for Labour the union is, as Lammy stressed, not one of those affiliated to the party. Unite, on the other hand, is Labour’s largest affiliate and a large source of funding. Graham has already indicated that she would like to cut donations to the party in favour of spending the money on union campaigns. Workers in other areas are considering walk outs, from teachers and nurses to barristers and postal workers. As more Labour-affiliated unions prepare to take industrial action, the pressure on the Labour leadership to take a less neutral line will grow.
One of the party’s most experienced MPs warned this morning that the rail dispute “speaks to a much wider debate” and that the Labour leadership is in danger of “misreading the political moment”. Writing exclusively for LabourList, Jon Cruddas told readers the RMT strikes are “the canary down the coal mine” of a coming fight between workers and a government trying to “ensure the costs of the pandemic are transferred to working people”. The Dagenham and Rainham MP argued: “Labour must support those fighting to defend their living standards when, in effect, they face pay cuts nearing 10% – if it doesn’t, you wonder what the purpose of the party is.” You can read the full piece here. Sign up to LabourList’s morning email for everything Labour, every weekday morning.