Keir Starmer is on a collision course with the left wing of his party over strike action, after at least three junior frontbenchers defied his instructions and joined RMT union picket lines on Tuesday morning.
Kate Osborne and Paula Barker, both parliamentary private secretaries to shadow ministers, tweeted that they had shown solidarity with striking workers on Tuesday morning.
The third frontbencher defying Starmer’s ban was Navendu Mishra, a Labour whip. He tweeted: “As a proud trade unionist, I stand with all workers on our railway network who are taking industrial action to fight for their jobs and keep passengers safe.”
Jarrow MP Osborne tweeted that she would, “always stand on the side of the workers”. She was pictured alongside RMT strikers in Bromley, south-east London.
Anas Sarwar, the leader of Scottish Labour, took a markedly different approach from Starmer, tweeting a picture of himself meeting striking RMT workers in Glasgow. “Solidarity with those on the picket lines. This is a crisis entirely of the government’s making,” he wrote.
Starmer’s deputy, Angela Rayner, who was a union rep before entering politics and has frequently appeared on picket lines in the past, posted what appeared to be a carefully worded tweet: “Workers have been left with no choice. No one takes strike action lightly. I will always defend their absolute right to do so for fairness at work.”
It is understood no decision will be taken about whether to discipline MPs pictured on picket lines until the industrial action has ended this weekend.
Members of the RMT are staging strike action on three days this week – the most significant rail strike for three decades, and potentially the first of a string of industrial disputes, as workers face double-digit inflation.
The Conservatives have sought to use the stoppages to divide Labour, calling them “Keir Starmer’s strikes”, despite the fact Starmer has condemned the action.
In a memo leaked to PoliticsHome on Monday, Starmer’s office said Labour must “show leadership”, which meant “frontbenchers including PPSs should not be on picket lines”.
As well as the frontbenchers, backbenchers, many of them members of the leftwing Socialist Campaign Group, attended picket lines, including the former shadow cabinet members John McDonnell and Ian Lavery.
A spokesperson for Momentum, the leftwing group that has been highly critical of Starmer’s stance, said: “The Labour party was founded to represent the interests of workers.
“But under Keir Starmer’s leadership, the party has lost its way. Instead, it is Socialist Campaign Group MPs out there on the picket lines with rail workers who refuse to accept cuts to their pay and conditions, in a time of spiralling inflation. That’s the basic solidarity that the Labour name demands.”
One shadow cabinet minister privately expressed concern about the ban, fearing Starmer had needlessly provoked a public row.
Conservative HQ responded gleefully to news that some MPs had joined striking workers, tweeting that Labour were “literally on the picket lines”.
In a video released during his campaign for the Labour leadership in 2019, Starmer called himself a “proud trade unionist”, saying he had been “working with trade unions all my life”.
A Labour spokesperson said: “Unlike the government, our focus is firmly on the public. The Tories are in charge, and they failed to fix it. The responsibility for this week’s chaos lies firmly with them.”