The shadow foreign secretary, David Lammy, has apologised for condemning plans for a strike by workers at British Airways, saying he had “made a mistake” about the facts.
Labour’s stance on strikes has come under intense scrutiny in the past week, after several frontbenchers disregarded an order by Keir Starmer not to attend picket lines during the three days of RMT industrial action.
Asked if he supported plans for a BA strike, mostly by check-in staff, by Sophie Raworth on the BBC’s Sunday Morning, Lammy said: “No, I don’t. No I don’t – it is a no, it’s a categorical no.”
Some shadow cabinet colleagues were exasperated by Lammy’s comments, which went beyond the agreed line of supporting workers’ rights to defend their livelihoods, while insisting the government should be doing more to prevent strikes.
In a letter to a constituent involved in the dispute, first reported by the Mirror, Lammy said he had been misinformed, and believed the staff were pressing for a 10% pay rise. In fact, they are asking for the reinstatement of pay that was cut during the pandemic, and protesting against what they say are “fire and rehire” tactics by the airline.
Lammy said he had “misheard” Raworth’s question. “When she said that workers wanted to reverse a previous pay cut of 10%, I mistakenly understood it to mean that they were seeking an above-inflation pay rise,” he wrote.
“I was not across the details of the case. It is right that those of us in public life admit when they have made a mistake. With this in mind, I apologise to all BA workers.”
While not actually confirming he supported the proposed strike, he added that if the government had banned fire and rehire, as Labour has demanded, “you wouldn’t be in this invidious position of being able to demand what is rightfully yours”.
About 700 staff at BA’s Heathrow hub represented by the GMB union voted last week to take industrial action. Most are check-in staff, and the GMB says the majority are low-paid women.
Lammy’s remarks on Sunday infuriated union leaders who had already responded negatively to Starmer’s picket line ban.
Unite’s general secretary, Sharon Graham, said on Sunday, “supporting bad bosses is a new low for Labour”.
The Guardian understands union general secretaries are due to meet senior Labour figures on Friday, to sign off on a policy report. One party insider described the mood among union leaders as “hopping mad”.
Starmer has backed away from sacking any of the five frontbenchers who were pictured showing solidarity with RMT picketers. Instead, Labour’s chief whip has spoken to each of them, and sent them a letter about their future conduct.
In a visit to Sanatan Mandir temple in Crawley, West Sussex, on Friday, Starmer said he considered the matter closed. “I was very clear that a responsible government gets the negotiating parties around the table, that’s why I took the approach I did,” he said.
“The chief whip has now dealt with those that didn’t follow the advice and that’s a perfectly satisfactory outcome.”