Trust Issues And Unclear On Strikes — Why Labour MPs Want Keir Starmer To Get On The Front Foot (Photo: Illustration: Chris McGonigal/HuffPost; Photos: Getty Images)
As Britain finds itself in the worst economic crisis since the 2008 financial crash, Gordon Brown — who was prime minister at the time — offered some words of wisdom.
Writing in The Guardian this week, he said: “Time and tide wait for no one. Neither do crises. They don’t take holidays, and don’t politely hang fire.”
While Brown’s words were most likely aimed at Boris Johnson and his “zombie government”, some also interpreted it as a swipe at Keir Starmer.
The Labour leader made his first public appearance yesterday after a two-week family break, and in the coming days he will finally unveil his party’s proposals for dealing with the cost of living crisis.
With experts predicting that energy bills could reach an eye-watering £5,000 next April, the pressure on him to deliver is enormous.
But the Labour leader faces further criticism that — as well as being on holiday at a crucial time — the party has been more focused on an internal row over union strikes rather than the very crisis facing the country.
Many in Starmer’s party are already restive following the row which engulfed his leadership over the ban on Labour frontbenchers attending picket lines.
The row culminated in levelling up secretary Lisa Nandy apparently being allowed to attend a picket line in her Wigan constituency just days after shadow transport minister Sam Tarry was axed after he also joined a protest at Euston station.
The leadership has sought to draw a distinction between Nandy’s actions and those of Tarry, who Starmer said was sacked for appearing on the media without permission and “making up policy on the hoof”.
MP's back CWU members across BT Group as pay dispute enters critical phasehttps://t.co/KKVYnnA9kH
— The CWU (@CWUnews) August 11, 2022
Sources close to Nandy have insisted she told the leader’s office in advance that she was planning to join the CWU picket and stressed there was a difference between joining a picket line and speaking to local workers and constituents.
But figures around Starmer say they were “surprised” when pictures of her visit appeared on social media.
HuffPost UK has learned that the situation has caused unease among some in the shadow cabinet.
Some feel Starmer has punished Tarry while letting Nandy off the hook, while others are angry that Nandy was allowed to defy the picket line ban while they were forced to toe the line.
“Lisa Nandy got the drop on Keir,” a Labour insider said. “Everyone knows she’s gunning for his job and she’s outfoxed him by ingratiating herself with the unions. The rest of the shadow cabinet is annoyed she got in there before them.”
Sam Tarry was sacked after appearing on a picket line. (Photo: SOPA Images via Getty Images)
A Nandy ally said at the time that she would not have told Starmer’s office days in advance if she did not respect his leadership.
A Labour adviser added: “There’s an irritation that some individuals feel that they have toed a very difficult line and have done so in a way that has caused them great difficulty locally and with their unions.
“What’s being thrown at them now is not that this is a nonsensical policy. They’re going to their local meetings and being told, ‘Why have you not got the same backbone as Lisa Nandy’?
“The decision to ban frontbenchers from the picket line is one they fell into accidentally and a coach and horses has been driven through it by Lisa.”
In the briefings after his sacking, party figures also said Tarry’s reference to himself as the shadow transport secretary — a position held by Louise Haigh — was partly behind the decision to remove him.
But one Labour MP said they believed Haigh was being used as a “figleaf” for sacking the Ilford South MP.
HuffPost UK understands both Tarry and Haigh remain good friends despite the incident, with Haigh regarding his comments as a slip of the tongue rather than a deliberate attempt to undermine her.
“Louise is a streetfighter with the thickest skin in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and the idea she would be upset about anything as trivial as this is a bit laughable to be honest,” the MP said.
“To have dragged her name into it as spin as they tried to get rid of him is really offensive.”
Another senior Labour MP said Haigh was not “remotely upset” by the saga.
They said the whole affair had been handled badly from “start to finish” and that the leadership must come up with a “coherent position” ahead of further strikes this summer.
“I don’t think I know what the line is, but I think it’s ‘do it if you must but don’t make a fuss about it’,” one frontbencher said.
Another MP added: “The current muddle means we’ll be in this position every single time there’s a strike.”
Indeed, with multiple strikes looming — not just from Aslef this weekend but potential action by the Royal College of Nursing and even a general strike — Starmer is being urged to resolve the tangle the party finds itself in.
The festering row over picket lines forms the backdrop of what is shaping up to be one of the most important weeks of Starmer’s leadership.
With the party still struggling to establish a commanding poll lead over a Tory Party engaged in open civil war, the leader’s critics are ready to pounce if his cost of living plan fails to shift the dial.
Sources say Labour’s proposals for helping people struggling to make ends meet has been worked on by Starmer, shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves and shadow climate change secretary Ed Miliband for months.
“It has been long planned,” one insider told HuffPost UK. “A week may be a long time in politics but we were waiting for the forecasts this week to finalise our plans and have it out well in advance of the price cap announcement on August 26.”
Brown’s intervention — including plans to temporarily nationalise firms that don’t bring down their bills — have set the bar for what a radical Labour response to the crisis should look like.
If Starmer fails to clear it, critics may well ask what the Labour Party is waiting for.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.