A former shadow transport minister has joined striking workers on another picket line just two days after Sir Keir Starmer sacked him from Labour’s front bench.
As tens of thousands of BT and Openreach workers across the country strike in a dispute over pay for the first time in 35 years, Sam Tarry addressed the Communication Workers Union (CWU) rally in central London, saying: “It’s good to be back.”
In what appeared to be a direct challenge to Sir Keir, he told the crowd that “things were changing” – saying it was “time to fight back” and “reclaim our party”.
The Labour leader’s hardline stance – and decision to sack Mr Tarry on Wednesday – has infuriated unions and the party’s left, in a row only set to come into sharper focus throughout the year as the list of striking workers potentially extends to include teachers, medics and firefighters.
Sir Keir, who joined picket lines in 2019 while shadow Brexit secretary, has insisted that he “understands the concerns” of workers going on strike, many of whom are facing levels of inflation not seen for four decades following years of real-terms wage cuts.
But the Labour leader has ordered frontbench MPs to keep their distance as tens of thousands of rail workers go on strike this month in a long-raging dispute over pay, jobs and conditions – arguing that “the Labour Party in opposition needs to be the Labour Party in power”.
However, after sacking Mr Tarry as a shadow transport minister this week, Sir Keir said he had done so because the MP had “made up policy on the hoof”, a remark understood to relate to the MP telling broadcasters from the RMT’s picket line that every worker should get a pay rise in line with inflation.
“Sam Tarry was sacked because he booked himself onto media programmes without permission, and then made up policy on the hoof, and that can’t be tolerated in any organisation because we’ve got collective responsibility,” the party leader said during a visit to Birmingham on Thursday.
But Labour former shadow chancellor John McDonnell – who joined striking workers at the BT tower alongside Mr Tarry on Friday – took issue with this explanation.
He pointed to the fact Rachel Reeves had not been sacked as shadow chancellor last week after sparking widespread confusion over Labour’s stance on nationalisation with an apparently rogue policy claim.
In his address to striking BT staff on Friday, Mr Tarry also criticised the rationale for his dismissal.
“We need a Labour leadership that is prepared to stand up and does not look the other way when BT workers are going to foodbanks,” said Mr Tarry.
“Let’s be absolutely clear – it is not good enough, it is not good enough for the Labour Party to say that we probably won’t be able to give you a pay rise in line with inflation,” he added. “Because that means the Labour Party is committed to cut people’s wages in real terms and that is totally unacceptable.”
He added: “If I’m sacked for having said that live on TV and not supposed to [have] been on that picket line then people need to have a really hard think about what the Labour Party is for.
“Because for me the clue is in the name: Labour. On the side of working people.”
Labour MP Andy McDonald also joined a picket line in Middlesbrough, as did Rebecca Long-Bailey in Salford and Ian Lavery in Morpeth.
Speaking from the picket line at London’s BT Tower, Mr McDonnell told the Press Assocation: “If you’re a Labour MP, whether on the frontbench or the backbench, you should be on the picket lines.”
Addressing the same rally, former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, now an independent MP, told those striking: “Our job is to unite everyone in this campaign for real social justice. It’s called socialism, where you don’t leave anyone behind.”