Senior shadow ministers have privately expressed doubts that Labour’s stance on strikes is sustainable after Keir Starmer sacked front bencher Sam Tarry for conducting radio interviews from a picket line on the rail strike.
The Guardian understands Tarry was told he had been sacked as shadow Minister for Buses and Urban Transport because he said it was “unacceptable to offer wage increases below the rate of inflation” as it would mean a real wage cut for workers.
Tarry was told Labor’s position was that ministers and unions had to negotiate the terms. This row is likely to spark considerable concern among unions, including those affiliated with the party, over Labour’s position.
Frontbenchers told the Guardian they could be placed in untenable positions with several labor disputes planned by the unions in the coming months – including railway workers, postal workers, NHS workers and teachers. “There are a lot of people saying I don’t know if I can stay on the front bench,” said a senior source.
But there’s also significant irritation from the leader’s office that Tarry conducted a round of media without warning, and multiple sources have suggested that he had pushed Starmer into firing him to help him fight a difficult fight against vote-out respectively.
“Sam Tarry has done a complete media round without his boss, Lou Haigh [the shadow transport secretary] or the head’s office know in advance,” a Labor source said. “This represents a total breakdown of discipline and put leadership in a position where it was impossible to do anything else.”
Starmer has told shadow ministers not to join the picket line, stressing Labor is a party that wants to govern and should aim to resolve disputes. Several shadow ministers who had joined pickets during the last strike did not lose their jobs despite the warning.
A Labor spokesman said: “Labour will always stand up for working people fighting for better wages and conditions at work,” the spokesman said.
“It’s not about showing up on a picket line. Frontbench members commit to collective responsibility. This includes approving media appearances 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 front bench.”
Tarry, a former Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association (TSSA) official who helped lead Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaign, has not previously joined pickets as shadow minister, although he did share a picture of himself next to workers on a previous day of strike had tweeted .
TSSA Secretary General Manuel Cortes said he was ashamed of the party. “Whatever excuses Labor makes about the reasons for Sam’s sacking, the reality is that Sam has shown solidarity with his class and we applaud him for that,” he said.
“If you think you can win the next general election while ousting 7 million union members, you are being fooled.”
Tarry, who is in a relationship with Labor Party Deputy Leader Angela Rayner, said in a statement he had no regrets about his actions. “As a Labor politician, I am proud to be on the picket line with these striking railway workers in the face of this Tory government’s relentless attack,” he said.
“It has been a privilege to serve on the front bench at Labor for the last two years and to have had the opportunity to speak up for hard-pressed workers who deserve so much better than the treatment they are touched by this corrupt and unconventional government .”
Ruth Jones, a shadow environment secretary, has also posted images supporting the recent strike, although not directly from pickets. Shadow ministers, including Alex Sobel and Labor whip Navendu Mishra, were attacked by whips for joining the picket lines in the last strike but did not lose their jobs.
A shadow cabinet source said they believed Starmer’s position on the picket line would become untenable as the number of disputes increased.
“There will be other frontbenchers who want to support striking workers in their constituencies,” they said. Another Labor source said: “Postal strikes will be a nightmare because there may be hundreds of people in your constituencies. This would support very moderate party-affiliated unions. And MEPs need union support.”
However, senior Labor sources said they were skeptical of Tarry’s motives, linking them to his Ilford South re-election campaign. The wards in Tarry’s constituency voted unanimously for full re-election – meaning he is likely to lose the seat.
They suggested Tarry would actually challenge Starmer to fire him. Calling it “a pathetic, cynical prank to be sacked,” one said: “He didn’t go to the first picket line, he’s turned up now. So what has changed?”
Tarry said after the interviews that he remained on the side of the striking railway workers. He has previously written to Labor general secretary David Evans, claiming he saw evidence of voting irregularities in his campaign.
Tarry won election for the east London seat in 2019 after local council leader Jas Athwal was suspended from the party ahead of the vote over allegations of improper conduct. Athwal, an ally of neighboring MP Wes Streeting, was subsequently acquitted in an internal investigation.