'Get off the fence': Labour MPs defy Starmer over rail strikes amid 'simmering resentment'

25 June 2022, 18:14 | Updated: 25 June 2022, 18:18

Sir Keir has been told to get off the fence over striking workers
Sir Keir has been told to get off the fence over striking workers. Picture: Getty

By Will Taylor

Labour MPs have defied Sir Keir Starmer’s attempts to keep the party away from striking rail worker's picket lines, demanding he "come off the fence".

John McDonnell and Diane Abbot – key figures in the Corbyn era – joined hundreds of people at King's Cross St Pancras in central London to show support for the RMT union.

Saturday marked the third and final day of national train strikes that ground Britain's railways to almost a complete halt, with workers taking action over pay, jobs and conditions.

Labour leader Sir Keir – who is keeping one eye on public reaction to the industrial action – has been trying to keep his party away from the picket lines, reportedly ordering his frontbench MPs to avoid them.

Backbencher Mr McDonnell cranked up the pressure on Saturday: "I'm on picket line after picket line and so are many Labour MPs.

"I'm saying to Keir Starmer and other Labour MPs as well, do the right thing.

John McDonnell said he wanted Sir Keir to back the strikes
John McDonnell said he wanted Sir Keir to back the strikes. Picture: Getty

"If you think RMT have got a justifiable dispute, we should support them. I think it is justifiable.

"Follow your conscience, so therefore for me that means Labour MPs being on picket lines and it includes Keir Starmer as well coming off the fence, supporting working people because they're not asking for the world.

"They're asking for protection."

Sir Keir has been emboldened by strong polls for Labour and the return of the red wall seat Wakefield in Thursday's by-election.

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But he has spent the week under pressure from unions to back the industrial action.

He has not given full support, instead blaming the Government for allowing the dispute to get to this point and saying he did not want strikes.

He will also want to avoid giving the Government more opportunity to run out its attack line where it claims Labour is supporting the disruptive action.

Sir Keir has tried to avoid tying Labour to the strikes
Sir Keir has tried to avoid tying Labour to the strikes. Picture: Getty

Ms Abbott told the crowd: "I'm proud to be speaking here, proud to be speaking on RMT picking lines and I have to say I don't understand this argument that Labour MPs should not be on picket lines."

She said: "I don't understand the argument that Labour should not be there because we are not supposed to pick a side.

"I thought when you join the Labour Party you had picked a side - on the side of working people."

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Deputy leader Angela Rayner also clearly backed the action, saying workers had been left with "no choice".

Sir Keir is reported to be weighing up disciplinary action for an MPs who defied his orders about the picket lines.

Simon Fletcher, who has advised Sir Keir along with Jeremy Corbyn and Ed Miliband, warned of an "explosion" if frontbenchers are disciplined, adding that there is a "a lot of simmering resentment and irritation" over Labour's approach to the strikes.