WATCH: Sacking Tarry a “severe mistake” by Starmer advisers, McDonnell says

Katie Neame

John McDonnell has said it was a “severe mistake” by Keir Starmer’s advisers to sack Sam Tarry as shadow transport minister and urged Labour to “come off the fence and be on the side of a just cause – the workers”.

Tarry was removed from his shadow minister role after he joined members of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) on a rail strike picket line on Wednesday.

Appearing on Sky News, the former Shadow Chancellor said: “I don’t know who’s advising Keir Starmer, but this is a completely unnecessary row that’s been invented, just at a time when the Tories are tearing themselves apart. and we’ve got the maximum opportunity I think to gain an advantage in the polls.”

McDonnell told viewers: “Sam went on the picket, like minister after minister, shadow minister after shadow minister, over the years, in support of workers who are asking for a decent pay rise. It’s a just cause.

“And now we’re told he’s been sacked not because he went on the picket lines, but because he made statements on the picket lines. But what was he supposed to do? Go on there and wear a gag? It’s a silly, silly situation to get in to.”

The Labour backbencher said Labour needs to accept that there will be a “wave of industrial action now”, as unions members are voting “overwhelmingly” for strikes over concerns relating to pay. He declared: “We’ve got to come off the fence and be on the side of a just cause – the workers. I think they’ve got it right.”

McDonnell said he thought Starmer’s advisers had made a “severe mistake” in firing Tarry, adding that they had “dug [Labour] into a hole in the first place unnecessarily, by telling people not to go on picket lines”.

He said: “To dig ourselves into a hole like this, telling people they can’t go on picket lines, was inevitably gonna lead to something like this, a real mistake and division like this.

“I think it’s time to back off and recognise the real issue is what working-class people are going through at the moment which is a terrible cost-of-living crisis. How do we solve it? We back them by getting inflation-proof pay awards to support them. It’s as simple as that.

“So I think mistakes have been made from the very beginning. We need to stand back and actually start trying to secure unity across, not just the whole labour and trade union movement, but across the country overall.”

McDonnell argued that Starmer and his team had “completely misread the situation” and misread the “mood within the labour and trade union movement” and the “mood amongst the general public”.

“There’s millions of people out there who are now contemplating and voting for industrial action because they can’t survive on the wages and the wage offer that they’ve been given. So we’ve got to back them, because it’s the just cause,” the Labour MP concluded.

Ahead of earlier strikes by the RMT in June, Starmer’s office circulated a message stating that “frontbenchers including [parliamentary private secretaries] should not be on picket lines”.

LabourList understands that frontbenchers were not sent a similar memo ahead of Wednesday’s strikes, but Keir Starmer said on Tuesday: “The Labour Party in opposition needs to be the Labour Party in power. And a government doesn’t go on picket lines.”

Commenting on the decision to sack Tarry, a Labour spokesperson said: “This isn’t about appearing on a picket line. Members of the frontbench sign up to collective responsibility. That includes media appearances being approved and speaking to agreed frontbench positions.

“As a government-in-waiting, any breach of collective responsibility is taken extremely seriously and for these reasons Sam Tarry has been removed from the frontbench.”

LabourList understands that the decision was made over comments Tarry made in a Sky News interview during which he suggested workers could not be offered a below-inflation pay rise. Labour’s position is that pay negotiations are for unions and ministers.

Tarry said he was “proud” to have joined the workers who “kept our train services running throughout the pandemic” against “relentless attacks” from the Conservative government.

He added: “It has been a privilege to serve on Labour’s frontbench for the past two years and to have had the opportunity to speak up for hard-pressed workers who deserve so much better than the treatment they’ve received from this corrupt and out-of-touch government.

“I remain committed to supporting the striking rail workers and campaigning for a Labour victory at the next general election, which I will fight for relentlessly from the backbenches.”

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