Sir Keir Starmer faces an unenviable choice: whether to sack shadow transport minster Sam Tarry who defied the Labour leader’s instruction not to join RMT picket lines and posed for photos outside Euston station this morning. Fail to sack him and Starmer will undermine his own authority and make himself look pathetically weak. Wield the axe, on the other hand, and Starmer will stir anger well beyond the Corbynite wing of the party, and reveal to the world how deeply knee-jerk support for striking workers still runs within Labour’s ranks.
Twenty five years ago Tony Blair convinced the electorate that the trade union movement and Labour’s relationship with it had evolved into one of maturity and responsibility. Tarry’s appearance on the RMT picket lines is yet one more example of how, despite this, so many of Labour’s people continue to have a romantic image of striking workers.
For many on the Labour benches, trade unions can do no wrong; their cause is always just and their picket lines must never, ever be crossed. It is a position unlikely to be shared by the many floating voters in the centre of the political spectrum whose support Labour needs to win if it is going to come close to forming another government.
Most people can see that rail workers have been a privileged group in recent years. Their strikes, and threats to strike, combined with a flaccid response from train operating companies, have allowed them to bid up their pay to remarkable levels – your average train driver would have been very close to falling within Corbyn’s super tax bracket, which was to start at £80,000. Moreover, rail workers continued to enjoy a remarkably favourable deal throughout Covid. In spite of many fewer trains running, workers were not laid off and put on furlough – they continued to receive full pay. Taxpayers supported every single job to the tune of £160,000. That is public money which might otherwise have been spent on schools, hospitals and many other things.
Yet it is rail unions – not unions which represent workers in sectors which were hollowed out during the pandemic – who are now demanding even higher salaries. They are doing so because they can. They know that by going on strike they cause disruption in a way which most other groups of workers would struggle to do. Just look at the modern electricity generating industry, which is so much more diversified than in the days when Arthur Scargill and his miners could threaten to turn the lights out.
This summer’s rail strikes are such an obvious indulgence by one group of over-privileged workers that they are going to offend a very large proportion of the public: people who earn much less than rail workers and whose ability to earn money is being seriously undermined by the difficulty of getting to work. Yet there is a very large body of Labour people who simply will never be able to bring themselves to do anything but cheer striking union workers. The rail strikes, therefore, present a serious impediment to Labour’s chances of forming a government.
How Keir Starmer reacts to MPs and shadow ministers who take to the picket lines will be key. But there is little sign yet that he has it in him to succeed where Blair did and convince the country that Labour’s relationship with the trade union movement is a responsible one.