Isabel Hardman

Should Starmer be worried about the rail strikes?

Should Starmer be worried about the rail strikes?
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Sir Keir Starmer has ended up in a very Starmer-esque pickle over the rail strikes this week. Yesterday he instructed Labour frontbenchers not to join picket lines, and said at the weekend that the strikes should not go ahead, having stayed rather quiet on the matter until then. This has annoyed many of his MPs, some of whom receive funding from the RMT, and others who believe Labour should be on the side of striking workers. Some of his frontbenchers have ignored the instruction and joined the pickets anyway.

Now he has to decide whether to discipline and even sack those frontbenchers. The Tories meanwhile have been pursuing an aggressive strategy of calling these 'Labour's strikes' in campaign emails and open letters to shadow ministers. But surprisingly, the Starmer camp aren't just relaxed about the row, they're growing increasingly confident. I understand that the party held focus groups last week where aides were surprised that far from finding the 'Labour's strikes' line compelling, voters just 'laughed at' them. The complaints coming out of those groups were that the government should be stopping those strikes and that Boris Johnson was just trying to shift blame onto someone else once again.

At this point, the leader's team decided it was safe to move out of a defensive crouch and go on the attack, both on the strikes themselves and on the government's handling of them. Starmer is likely to sound even more bullish in the coming days and weeks.

I also understand that Labour's chief whip will be looking at what disciplinary action to take against frontbenchers who defied their leader after the strikes have finished so that there isn't a long drip-drip of MPs appearing in picket line photos and subsequent sackings. It's not yet clear whether there will be sackings or some other form of action. 

That there has been a big row about the position Starmer took on picket lines underlines how much work he has had to do in order to move Labour back to its normal pre-Corbyn position on industrial action. It's worth pointing out that Ed Miliband criticised strikes when he was leader (this video of him making that argument in a strangely robotic fashion went viral in the 2015 election campaign). But if there isn't conspicuous disciplinary action, it will surely suggest that Starmer's authority isn't as strong as he would like it to be. 

It has also taken the leader a long time to come up with this more bullish position, even when it was clear for weeks that there was going to be an internal dispute over the strikes (when I interviewed backbench MP Rachael Maskell about this on the Week in Westminster earlier this month, she made clear that she and other MPs were looking for frontbenchers to join the pickets).

Starmer spends a lot of time complaining that 'the government should have seen this coming' – but on this, he could quite easily turn that criticism on himself.

Written byIsabel Hardman

Isabel Hardman is assistant editor of The Spectator and author of Why We Get the Wrong Politicians. She also presents Radio 4’s Week in Westminster.

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