Thursday briefing: Has Keir Starmer suffered signal failure on rail strikes?

Good morning. This should be a very difficult week for the Conservative party. The country grinds to a halt for a second time today because of rail strikes that unions blame on the government; Boris Johnson refuses to say whether he tried to get his now-wife a job at the foreign office; inflation hits a 40-year high; and tomorrow morning two by-election results could indicate the extent of voters’ disapproval. Somehow, though, it’s Labour that seems to be in the throes of a crisis.

Where some in his own party have viewed the strikes as a moment of obligation to stand in solidarity with rail workers, Keir Starmer has tried to navigate a different path. He ordered his frontbenchers to stay away from picket lines – and now he is weighing how to discipline five who defied him.

The Tories have tried to brand the RMT action as “Labour’s strikes”. But some fear that in his attempts to disprove that branding, Starmer may have created a more serious problem. Today, the Guardian’s political editor Heather Stewart reports that the rebel MPs are being asked to apologise.

So how did Starmer settle on this line – and what does it tell us about his direction for the party? For today’s newsletter, I spoke to Heather about why the Labour leader has chosen this fight, and what it might cost him to win it. Here are the headlines.

Five big stories

  1. Afghanistan | Afghanistan’s Taliban-led government has appealed for more international aid as it struggles to cope with a devastating earthquake that left more than 1,000 people dead and many more injured.

  2. Rail strikes | Talks to avert a second national rail strike collapsed in rancour to leave millions of passengers facing another day of disruption on Thursday. The head of the RMT said the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, had “wrecked negotiations”, a claim Shapps called a “total lie”.

  3. Ukraine | A British man sentenced to death by a Russian proxy court for fighting in Ukraine has been told the execution will be carried out, his family have said. Aiden Aslin’s grandmother Pamela Hall said his captors had claimed nobody from the UK had been in touch over his case.

  4. Polio | Public health officials declared a national incident after surveillance of wastewater in London found evidence of community transmission of poliovirus. The risk to the public is considered low, but officials urged people to make sure they were up to date with polio vaccinations.

  5. Conservatives | MPs are considering ways to force an investigation after Boris Johnson refused to deny trying to get his now-wife Carrie Johnson a senior foreign office job in 2018.

In depth: Understanding the Labour leader’s strike strategy

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer (right) makes a speech during the Wakefield by-election campaign trail.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer (right) makes a speech during the Wakefield by-election campaign trail. Photograph: Dave Higgens/PA

It’s right there in the ten pledges he made when he campaigned to become Labour leader: Number 7. “Strengthen workers’ rights and trade unions,” Keir Starmer promised.Stand up for working people, tackle insecure work and low pay. Repeal the Trade Union Act. Oppose Tory attacks on the right to take industrial action and the weakening of workplace rights.” But on the first day of strike action this week, Starmer made no public appearance or comment – and now he is ready to take on the frontbenchers who joined pickets. Why the change of emphasis?


Why Starmer banned Labour frontbenchers from joining picket lines

This week’s strikes put Keir Starmer in a difficult position. For a leader whose modus operandi is to avoid elephant traps set by the Tories to paint him – however implausibly – as a “Corbynista in an Islington suit”, a paralysed rail network and endless references to the 1970s are bound to create a sense of political danger. Rafael Behr wrote in the Guardian that Starmer “understands that waving placards and joining protest marches is how Labour signals to voters that it is comfortable in opposition, which is a reason why the party keeps failing to get into government”.

At the same time, a lot of Labour supporters – who strongly back the strikes – are deeply uncomfortable at seeing their leader decline to unambiguously support a group of workers paid an average of £31,000 a year as they seek to protect themselves from compulsory redundancies and a real-terms pay cut. But perhaps Starmer and his team relish the opportunity to pick a fight.

“He has this idea about being a strong leader,” says Heather. “He says the word ‘leadership’ quite a lot. He, or the people around him, think taking on the left is going to play well with the public.”

There is also a sense emanating from Starmer’s office that business is disillusioned with Boris Johnson’s Conservatives, and receptive to a Labour pitch for the first time in years. So the best way to make sense of his triangulation on the strikes is not to ask about the principle, but the politics. By this analysis, Starmer’s audience isn’t his own party, but the voters who rejected Jeremy Corbyn who he needs to get back on board if he is to win an election.


How his own MPs have responded

Well, if he wanted a fight, he has the makings of one. At least 25 MPs joined picket lines on Tuesday. While that figure may not represent mutiny given Starmer’s diktat only applied to frontbenchers, three PPSs [parliamentary private secretaries], one junior minister, and a whip – as well as the Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar – also joined pickets in direct defiance of their leader.

Hostilities were not soothed by Emily Thornberry dismissing the PPSs who rebelled as “bag-carriers”; Diane Abbott praised Sarwar and asked: “what is Keir Starmer going to do, remove Anas as leader?“. Three MPs Heather spoke to from different wings of the party described the picket line ban as “imbecilic”, “pointless”, and “dumb”.

“Many of those dismayed by Starmer’s moves were less like, ‘We should be on picket lines’, and more, ‘why would you do that?’” she added. “Some MPs complain that because he came to electoral politics fairly late, they feel like he thinks they’re employees and he’s the chief executive. But they don’t think parliament works like that.”


How his opponents have responded

It may not come as a total shock to learn that Starmer’s enemies have not taken his show of strength and mature responsibility at face value, instead seizing the opportunity to portray him as lacking authority and his party as radical leftists. The Daily Mail splashed on a picture of 10 Labour MPs at a picket in London and added the bracing question: “Where was Sir Keir? Hiding away all day like a coward”.

Boris Johnson said it was a “disgrace” that “he had 25 Labour MPs out on the picket line”, cheerfully ignoring Starmer’s own position on the question. Before Starmer spelled out the rules on pickets, Heather points out, “the frontbenchers who rebelled were not very well known. If he hadn’t taken this stance, some people wonder whether anybody would have noticed.”


How the public might respond

Polling on the strikes in the last few days has presented whichever answer best suits your political argument: YouGov asked if people “support or oppose” the strikes and got 37% for, 45% against; Savanta ComRes asked if the strikes are justified and got 58% saying yes, and 35% saying no. A poll from Ipsos yesterday found a 35%-35% split. In any case, Starmer and his team may be less interested in these overall figures than in the views of the specific demographics that Labour needs to win over – for example, there is a majority in opposition to the strikes among older voters however you frame the question.

There is another problem, though – one which presents an asterisk to the wisdom of many of the Labour leader’s most painstaking political formulations. When voters are asked for more detail on what they think of Starmer, they call him boring, and say they don’t know what he stands for. “They are very worried about antagonising specific voters,” Heather said. “He is a cautious person. But there are those who think that means you end up without a very clear understanding of what he really thinks about anything.” Taking a stand in support of workers might seem like a fairly natural way for a Labour leader to remedy that.


What happens next

Heather reports that no decision will be taken on discipline for the picketing frontbenchers until the end of the strikes – presumably so that any other cases can be dealt with at the same time. Heather reports today that the rebels have been urged to apologise or face punishment. That seems like an unlikely prequel to a peaceful resolution – one shadow minister says disciplinary action would be “outrageous” – but, again, perhaps peace with the left is not what Starmer wants.

The next question is how he will respond in the likely scenario of other strikes over the rest of the year from teachers, NHS workers, legal aid lawyers, and other public sector workers. “If nurses and teachers go out, you’d think that he’d have more room to manoeuvre,” said Heather. “He’s set a precedent that might make things confusing. But his opponents will argue that if Labour can’t support strikes by NHS staff during a cost of living crisis, it’s in a very strange place.”

We want to hear from you

How do you think the Labour leader has handled the strike?

The Guardian letters desk would love to hear from you – email your letter of up to 300 words to guardian.letters@theguardian.com or reply to this email.

What else we’ve been reading

  • “Access to medical care should not depend on a postcode lottery,” writes Rachel Connolly on the disparities for people living in Scotland and Northern Ireland who find themselves with an unwanted pregnancy. Nimo

  • Amnesty International’s Sacha Deshmukh writes trenchantly in opposition to Dominic Raab’s bill of rights. As well as dismantling its impacts, he notes that a large majority support the Human Rights Act as “a vital tool to hold the government to account when things go wrong.” Archie

  • The list of genres of Black music that have shaped British culture are long and growing. So why are the Black artists behind it not being treated equally, asks Komali Scott-Jones. Nimo

  • This Q+A interview with John Grisham for the New York Times is very entertaining on Hollywood, churning out a novel a year, and his journey to the left. “If you do sell a lot of books, you’re dismissed by critics,” he says. “So I decided a long time ago, I’ll take the money and run.” Archie

  • A devastating new Guardian documentary follows Mashrou’ Leila, one of the biggest bands in the Middle East, its lead singer, Hamed Sinno, a Lebanese-American gay rock star and queer activist Sarah Hegazi to explore a queer revolution in the region. Nimo

Sport

Football | Sadio Mané completed his transfer from Liverpool to Bayern Munich for £27.5m, which could rise to £35.1m with add-ons. The 30-year-old Senegalese forward signed a contract until 2025.

Athletics | Dina Asher-Smith and Katarina Johnson-Thompson headline England’s Commonwealth Games athletics team. Asher-Smith will likely face Olympic champion Elaine Thompson-Herah and world champion Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce in the 100m.

Golf | Rory McIlroy has labelled the players who have joined the Saudi-backed LIV Golf Series “duplicitous” for the way they have handled their breakaway. McIlroy was speaking after four-time major winner Brooks Koepka signed up for the breakaway series.

The front pages

Guardian front page, 23 June 2022
Guardian front page, 23 June 2022 Photograph: Guardian

“Talks to end rail dispute break down in acrimony” – the lead story in the Guardian’s print edition today. “Unions pile pressure on bosses after 7% pay deal” – that’s the Times, after Merseyrail and TSSA union workers reached agreement. The Financial Times has “Sunak defends 10% pension rise as teachers threaten strikes over pay”. The Telegraph is also on to that angle: “Teacher strike would be unforgivable, says Zahawi”. “It’s only fair! Rishi defends £1,000 boost to pensions” – that’s the Express, after the chancellor said it would not increase inflation. “Got to keep pay down, PM? Try telling this lot” – the Mirror again has Britain’s “fatcat” corporate bosses in its sights. The virus in the sewage scare makes the splash in the Daily Mail: “Polio is back in UK after 40 years”; the i’s similar headline also references 40 years. The Metro announces the “Nationwide polio alert” after public health officials declared a national incident. The Sun has “Get me to the judge on time” about Katie Price acting as a bridesmaid before she appears in court.

Today in Focus

Labour Party MP Kim Johnson (2L) and Labour (Co-op) MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle (1R) join RMT union members at the picket line outside Victoria Station on 21 June, 2022.
Labour Party MP Kim Johnson (2L) and Labour (Co-op) MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle (1R) join RMT union members at the picket line outside Victoria Station on 21 June, 2022. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

A summer of rail strikes?

Transport correspondent Gwyn Topham reports on the rail strike negotiations, and economics columnist Aditya Chakrabortty analyses the political response from the Conservatives and Labour

Cartoon of the day | Ben Jennings

Ben Jennings’ cartoon.
Ben Jennings’ cartoon. Photograph: Ben Jennings/The Guardian

The Upside

A bit of good news to remind you that the world’s not all bad

Leen Schelfhout’s Citizen Garden in Brussels. Photograph: Christophe Smets/The Guardian
Leen Schelfhout’s Citizen Garden in Brussels. Photograph: Christophe Smets/The Guardian

As cities around the world try to reduce traffic on their roads to curb pollution and climate change, car parks are increasingly becoming dead space. Rewilders are reclaiming these concrete structures, creating “parklets”, small green parks in a bid to boost biodiversity.

It’s not an easy endeavour – one couple recounts the local councils coming at 5am and taking their garden away – but for most it is an overwhelmingly positive experience, transforming empty spaces into homes for small animals and interesting plants.

Sign up here for a weekly roundup of The Upside, sent to you every Sunday

Bored at work?

And finally, the Guardian’s crosswords to keep you entertained throughout the day – with plenty more on the Guardian’s Puzzles app for iOS and Android. Until tomorrow.

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