Analysis: How The Rail Strikes Have Turned Into A Big Problem For Keir Starmer

The Labour leader's authority is being challenged by frontbenchers after he ordered them not to stand on picket lines.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer in the long Room at Trinity College in Dublin.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer in the long Room at Trinity College in Dublin.
Stefan Rousseau via PA Wire/PA Images

They may not be - as the Conservatives would have you believe - “Labour’s strikes”, but the RMT industrial action is proving to be nearly as big a headache for the opposition as it is for the government.

Yesterday, Keir Starmer’s office told the shadow cabinet that neither they, nor their junior team members, should stand on picket lines alongside striking workers.

Inevitably, this order was ignored by, at the latest count, four frontbenchers.

One of them, Kate Osborne (an aide to shadow Northern Ireland secretary Peter Kyle) pointedly tweeted: “I’m a trade unionist, I will always stand on the side of the workers.”

With two more days of strike action planned for later this week, the chances are that others may well follow their example, creating another headache for Starmer.

Labour chief whip Alan Campbell will decide on what action to take against the transgressors after Saturday’s strike is over, but it would be a surprise, as well as a major demonstration of weakness by the Labour leader, if they were to remain in their posts.

But perhaps the biggest challenge to Starmer’s authority came from his deputy, Angela Rayner, who tweeted: “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.”

Compare and contrast that with what the Labour told the Local Government Association conference at the weekend.

He said: “Nobody should want [the strikes] to go ahead. Businesses will struggle with freight, school exams will be hard to get to, hospital appointments missed.

“That’s why I have said the strikes should not go ahead.”

As one Labour insider said of Rayner’s intervention: “It’s a sort of vicarious joining the picket line.”

One member of the shadow cabinet said: “Angela likes to ride all the horses at the same time, which is what this looks like.”

But another frontbencher said: “Tony Blair used to say about John Prescott ‘John is John’. This was just Angela being Angela.”

In another less-than-helpful intervention, Labour MP Charlotte Nichols pointed out that the party’s leader in Scotland, Anas Sarwar, had managed to find his way to a picket line earlier today.

To remove any doubt about the point she was trying to make, she tweeted: “This is leadership.”

One senior party figure told HuffPost UK: “By writing to the shadow cabinet telling them not to go on the picket lines, Keir was inviting a challenge to his authority. The question everybody’s asking now is ’what is he going to do about it?”

At a time when the polls suggest that the public are yet to be convinced that he can be prime minister, and with even members of his own shadow cabinet calling him “boring”, the last thing Starmer needs is to be publicly challenged by members of his own front bench.

With a summer of discontent looking increasingly on the cards, the chances of further rebellion in the Labour ranks will only grow.

For the moment, however, like the thousands of commuters whose travel plans are being disrupted, Starmer needs there to be a speedy resolution to the railways dispute.