Strikes: Starmer ‘failing to read the room’

Islington councillors’ concern over Labour leader’s response to industrial action

Friday, 5th August — By Anna Lamche

Keir Starmer camdenrally Image 2019-09-01 at 00.12.16 (7)

Sir Keir Starmer

AS another wave of industrial action unfolds across the UK, Sir Keir Starmer’s response to the strikes has left some councillors in his own party asking: “What does Labour even stand for right now?”

In recent months, union members have taken to picket lines to demand pay rises and better working conditions as the cost-of-living crisis squeezes flatlining wages, and energy companies cash in with record profits.

Mr Starmer banned his frontbench MPs from attending the picket lines, later saying Labour had to move away from being a “party of protest”.

Last week, Labour frontbencher Sam Tarry tested this ban by appearing alongside striking rail workers at Euston Station.

By the end of the day, Mr Starmer had sacked the Shadow Minister for Buses and Local Transport, causing outrage in some quarters of the party.

Mr Starmer denied Mr Tarry was sacked for joining the picket line, blaming his “unauthorised media appearances” for the demotion.

Confusion then reigned as shadow cabinet member Lisa Nandy went unpunished after she joined striking telecoms workers in a show of support on Friday.

Councillor and union member Phil Graham told the Tribune the decision to sack Mr Tarry was a “big, big mistake”.

“I think Starmer isn’t reading the room – there’s a lot more support for [strike] action than he thinks,” Cllr Graham said.

On Twitter, the Bunhill councillor posted an image of Mr Starmer with the word “scab” across his forehead – a term used to insult strike-breakers.

“I’ve been a trade unionist for decades and I’ve never seen behaviour from a Labour leadership like I’ve seen this week,” Cllr Graham wrote.

“The Tories are tearing themselves apart and our so-called leader decides to attack his own MPs.

“Solidarity with Sam Tarry and all the unions taking action.”

“I think he’s trying to be Neil Kinnock mark II,” Cllr Graham said, referring to the former Labour leader who sought to weaken Labour’s ties to the unions during the 1980s. “He’s not even a bad Tony Blair tribute act, he’s a bad Neil Kinnock tribute act,” he added.

Meanwhile, Tufnell Park councillor Gulcin Ozdemir took to Twitter to write: “So Labour has decided you are defying the whip if you fight for workers’ rights during a cost-of-life crisis [and] inflation. What does Labour even stand for right now?”

Cllr Ozdemir said she was supportive of the strikes, adding that the decision to sack Mr Tarry “fundamentally sends the wrong message”.

She said she was pleased to see Ms Nandy join the picket lines.

“There are a lot of frontbench Labour MPs, including Lisa Nandy, including Sam Tarry, who show very clearly what they stand for, and that reflects the Labour Party,” Cllr Ozdemir said.

She said of her tweet: “That question was genuine… what I would want to know from the leadership clearly is: what is the stance? What is their position on the strikes? What is their position on demanding better pay and better conditions?”

“In terms of the leadership, it’s for Keir Starmer to make it clear what the vision is, what Labour represents, what the vision is, moving forward, what the alternative is. What is the economic alternative he is presenting? I think that’s what we all want to know,” she said.

The Labour leader attempted to articulate his “ambitions” for the party during a speech given in Liverpool last week.

“Labour will fight the next election on economic growth,” Mr Starmer said.

But Clerkenwell councillor Matt Nathan said: “I’m sceptical of people who say the solution is growth. Growth for who? Growth for people who create wealth, or those who extract it?

“I think the strikes are part of a broader picture. We’re seeing the biggest attack on living standards in my lifetime, largely driven by greed – the same greed that is destroying our planet, corroding public services and living standards as companies are recording record profits. There is no justification for it,” he said.

“The Tories are laser-focused on solidarity with their class. The Labour Party was founded to serve the class interest of everyone else. The time for fiddling around the margins is long gone: in the face of multiple crises and challenges we require full-throated support for collectivism.”

In a line which was meant to provide clarity but which some said made it harder to understand Mr Starmer’s position, he told the Sunday Mirror that the party supported workers’ right to strike. Ms Nandy’s office said she had prewarned the leadership that she would be attending.

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