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RMT boss Mick Lynch (left) attacked Labour leader Keir Starmer (centre) for “playing up to the agenda of Liz Truss and the right wing press” after sacking Sam Tarry (right). (Photo: Getty/PA/Good Morning Britain)
A major trade union has said the Labour party is “more and more irrelevant to ordinary working people” after a frontbencher was sacked after joining a picket line in support of strike action.
The criticism from Unite general secretary Sharon Graham was among a series of attacks from union bosses following Keir Starmer’s removal of Sam Tarry, the shadow transport minister.
Tarry appearing at the demonstrations, standing alongside striking workers at London’s Euston station on Wednesday morning, in a challenge to Starmer’s authority.
Around 40,000 members of the rail workers’ RMT union staged another walkout on Wednesday in a dispute over proposed changes to working conditions, pay and job losses.
Starmer had said on Tuesday the Labour party in opposition needs to be “the Labour party in power, and a government doesn’t go on picket lines”.
A spokesman for the party said that Tarry was not sacked because he stood on the picket line, but because he appeared on television without permission and did not speak to an “agreed frontbench position”.
Nonetheless, the decision provoked anger from some Labour MPs as well as trade unions that bankroll the party. A potential party civil war comes as the Conservative Party is also riven following Boris Johnson’s removal as leader.
Tarry, who is an ally of Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner, told LBC he had taken phone calls from seven union general secretaries that are “absolutely fuming” about his sacking and are now on a “direct collision course with the Labour party”.
Unite’s general secretary Graham described the sacking as “another insult to the trade union movement”.
The @UKLabour sacking of @SamTarry for supporting working people on strike, against cuts to their jobs and pay, is another insult to the trade union movement. Quite frankly it would be laughable if it were not so serious. 1/3 #SamTarry
— Sharon Graham (@UniteSharon) July 27, 2022
So Labour have sacked Sam Tarry for joining a rail workers picket line today. History does not reflect well on those who sit on the fence in times of injustice. @SamTarry join me at the CWU picket line at BT Tower on Friday morning mate. Well done.
— Dave Ward (@DaveWardGS) July 27, 2022
Graham said: “The Labour sacking of Sam Tarry for supporting working people on strike, against cuts to their jobs and pay, is another insult to the trade union movement.
“Quite frankly, it would be laughable if it were not so serious.
“At a time when people are facing a cost of living crisis, and on the day when the Conservative government has launched a new wave of attacks on the rights of working people, the Labour Party has opted to continue to indulge in old factional wars.
“Labour is becoming more and more irrelevant to ordinary working people who are suffering. Juvenile attacks on trade unionists will do absolutely nothing to further Labour’s prospects for power.”
Transport Salaried Staffs Association (TSSA) general secretary Manuel Cortes said the union was “ashamed” of Labour and suggested it was “deluded” to think the party could defeat the Conservatives without the support of union members.
Cortes said: “The Labour party needs to wake up and smell the coffee.
“If they think can win the next general election while pushing away seven million trade union members, they are deluded.
“We expect attacks from the Tories, we don’t expect attacks from our own party.
“As a Labour-affiliated union, our union is ashamed of the actions of the Labour party leadership and the anti-worker anti-union message it is sending out.”
Cortes hit out directly at Starmer, adding he was not “worthy of leading” the party if he could not understand “the basic concept of solidarity”.
Mick Lynch to @TimesRadio on Sam Tarry sacking: ‘sad day, a very sad day for the Labour Party - the name gives it away… sad day when people like Keir Starmer… are playing up to the agenda of Liz Truss and others’
— Charlotte Ivers (@CharlotteIvers) July 27, 2022
RMT boss Mick Lynch told Times Radio that Labour would only be able to reclaim its traditional heartlands if it could “identify with working class people’s needs and their campaigns”.
He too attacked the Labour leader, accusing Starmer of “playing up to the agenda of Liz Truss and the right wing press”.
Lynch said: “I think (it’s) a bit of an outrage and I think many Labour Party members, union activists and people are looking for a change.”
He added: “If (Starmer) can’t identify with that then he’s got no chance of winning back those seats and therefore he’s got no chance of being Prime Minister.”
Fellow frontbenchers Kate Osborne and Paula Barker also challenged Starmer’s authority by joining picket lines, and Labour MPs on the left of the party tweeted their support for Tarry after his sacking.
John McDonnell tweeted: “This must be the first Labour MP to be removed from his frontbench position for joining a trade union picket line to support workers.”
Kate Osamor said: “Solidarity, Sam Tarry. The Labour Party exists to fight for ordinary people. We must never lose sight of that.”
Zarah Sultana said: “Labour MPs should be proud to stand with workers. The clue is in the name.”
Labour MPs should be proud to stand with workers. The clue is in the name.
— Zarah Sultana MP (@zarahsultana) July 27, 2022
Every @UKLabour politician should visit rail workers on the @RMTunion picket lines & listen to why they are asking for job security, better safety & decent pay. Labour politicians are in Parliament to be their voice. @SamTarry has shown leadership today ... a real Labour MP.
— 💙Rachael Maskell MP (@RachaelMaskell) July 27, 2022
— Diane Abbott MP (@HackneyAbbott) July 27, 2022
Labour frontbenchers were initially warned not to join the rail picket lines last month.
An email from Starmer’s office to shadow cabinet members said: “We do not want to see these strikes to go ahead with the resulting disruption to the public.”
The message added: “However, we also must show leadership and to that end, please be reminded that frontbenchers including [parliamentary private secretaries] should not be on picket lines.
“Please speak to all the members of your team to remind them of this and confirm with me that you have done so.”
Osborne and Barker, as well as Labour whip Navendu Mishra and shadow environment minister Alex Sobel, defied their leader to join the June demos.
Party bosses decided not to sack them, although they were sent letters warning them about their future conduct.
After several hours of discussions behind the scenes on Wednesday, a party spokesperson said: “The Labour Party will always stand up for working people fighting for better pay, terms and conditions at work.
“This isn’t about appearing on a picket line. Members of the frontbench sign up to collective responsibility. That includes media appearances being approved and speaking to agreed frontbench positions.
“As a government in waiting, any breach of collective responsibility is taken extremely seriously and for these reasons Sam Tarry has been removed from the frontbench.”
In a statement, Tarry said: “It has been a privilege to serve on Labour’s frontbench for the past two years and to have had the opportunity to speak up for hard-pressed workers who deserve so much better than the treatment they’ve received from this corrupt and out-of-touch Government.
“I remain committed to supporting the striking rail workers, and campaigning for a Labour victory at the next general election, which I will fight for relentlessly from the backbenches.”
HuffPost UK revealed earlier this month how left-winger Tarry is facing a battle to hold onto his Ilford South seat.
Local Labour members voted to “trigger” him, meaning he must go through a full re-selection contest to be the party’s candidate at the next general election.
He has accused “factional elements of the party machine” of targeting left-wing candidates and MPs.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.