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Striking MPs could derail Starmer’s summer

24 June 2022
| by Field Team

As rail strikes bring the UK to a standstill, Keir Starmer faces a test of his leadership. With his party split along ideological lines, Field's Stephen Alton asks if he can plot a safe course and keep his leadership on track

Despite the sweltering heat, Starmer must think Christmas has come early. He has been given gift after gift, from partygate to the Government’s troubles with inflation and now another by-election victory. Boris even gave him what he long wished for: a windfall tax. However, rather than the summer being smooth sailing it is likely to be full of disruption.

Most of what he’s faced has been to simply criticise a struggling Government. Now comes a real test. Will he signal his support for rail strikes or will his journey to No 10 be stopped in its tracks? Far from fearing mass disruption to people’s lives, the Government seems to be relishing the biggest rail strike since 1989, even apparently stepping in to stop a deal being struck just so they can push out graphic after graphic attacking “Labour’s strikes”. Clearly, the Tories think this will be a good distraction from other issues and create deepening fault lines in the Opposition.

Far from taking ownership of the strikes, Starmer has sought to distance himself. He has refused to back RMT’s payrise demands and instead said he would most likely support the recommendation of the independent pay review bodies – a practical and sensible position, albeit not a very inspiring one. He even went as far as banning Shadow Ministers from appearing on picket lines. Needless to say some frontbenchers and other Labour MPs have defied orders and joined the strike. Does Keir have the authority or gumption to sack people whilst he remains under investigation? It is probably inaccurate to suggest Keir is against the strikes, he has after all repeated claims that many workers are suffering from a cost-of-living crisis and called for more support.

Starmer hasn’t been afraid to take on those within his own party. At last year’s Labour party conference he successfully fought the unions in a clash over their influence in leadership elections. He has also repeatedly distanced himself from the previous Labour administration and sought to modernise the party. All of this despite his claim during the leadership election where he said he was a “proud trade unionist”.

This stance is already causing him problems. Unions are significant contributors to the party and its MPs, and many of its members are traditional working-class voters who would, in normal times, back Labour. They may not hold the influence of yesteryear, but with 4 in 10 Unite members voting Conservative in 2019 the Labour leader cannot take their support for granted. Prominent trade unionist Arthur Scargill says he had “nothing but contempt” for Keir Starmer and another Union leader accused him of making a “catastrophic misjudgement”.

He may be celebrating the Wakefield win over a beer and curry tonight but these strikes are set to continue throughout the summer. The pressure has been ramped up by union pay deals in Merseyside and Chesterfield. And railway workers are only the beginning, with teachers and other public sector workers flirting with the idea of strikes. Ultimately, the Leader of the Opposition cannot solve these strikes, but the unions would expect him to back them, and he has so far stopped far short of doing that. If he continues to refuse the call he will be under increasing pressure from unions, members and MPs.

It may not be all doom and gloom for Starmer. A Savanta ComRes poll shows 66% of people feel the Government hasn’t done enough to prevent the strikes. Ken Clarke has also said that in his experience, the beginning of a strike is when public antipathy towards the unions is the highest. The longer they go on, the more the Government is blamed for not resolving the matter. Starmer will hope this is true. But don’t expect him to cross the picket line anytime soon, he is showing that he wants to be a mere passenger and not the driver of these strikes.

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