Rail passengers were hit by widespread disruption on Saturday as thousands of members of the Aslef rail union – drivers from nine operating companies – staged a 24-hour strike.
Senior Labour MPs have been warned not to visit staff at picket lines outside train stations, but left-wingers Dawn Butler and Barry Gardiner joined drivers at Willesden station in west London.
And frontbencher Kate Osborne, a parliamentary private secretary in the shadow Northern Ireland team, joined striking staff at Newcastle station. “I will always support workers in struggle … workers need a pay rise,” she tweeted.
Ms Butler said: “Trade unions are the aspirational vehicle of the working class. Trade unions make sure that people get a good wage, days off, paternity and maternity leave. What can be more aspirational than that?”
Gardiner, who, like Butler and Starmer, was a member of Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet, said he was backing “a summer of solidarity”, adding: “People are coming together and saying, ‘No, enough is enough’.”
Members of Starmer’s shadow cabinet have warned of a “breakdown in discipline” over the stance on picket lines, after shadow communities minister Lisa Nandy was pictured speaking to striking BT workers in Wigan earlier this month.
A source close to Ms Nandy said she wanted to support for her constituents and had informed the leader’s office about the visit to speak to striking staff.
Starmer sacked his shadow transport minister Sam Tarry in July after he carried out interviews from a rail workers’ picket line. But Starmer’s team insisted the decision was down to Tarry defying the party’s policy positions on TV, rather than appearing on a picket line.
Shadow ministers have held Zoom calls with union officials in recent weeks, the sanctioned way of engaging on pay issues and showing support for hard-pressed workers during the cost of living crisis.
Mick Whelan, general secretary of the Aslef, told Sky News on Saturday: “I believe the Labour Party is the party of the trade unions, and if you can’t come out and support a picket line maybe you shouldn’t be a Labour MP.”
Aslef members are striking in a bid to get a pay rise in line with the increase in the cost of living, with inflation currently running at 9.4 per cent.
The union has agreed to hold formal talks with the employers aimed at resolving their pay dispute, Steve Montgomery, chairman of the Rail Delivery Group, has said.
“The good news is that we had informal talks with Aslef and there will be formal talks next week. That is a really good step forward,” Montgomery told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.
Whelan confirmed the talks would take place – but said the rail companies were prevented from offering an increase of more than 2 per cent with without permission from the government.
“We find ourselves in a position where we are saying, ‘That won’t be enough,’,” the union boss told the Today programme.
Whelan added: “They say, ‘It’s down to the government’. We talk to the government and they say you have got to talk to the employers, and then we end up with a situation where it goes round and round in circles.”
Last week, Tarry told The Independent that Starmer cannot lead Labour to election victory unless working people believe that he “stands with them” on inflation and living standards.
The sacked shadow cabinet member warned that the party’s leader risks being “blown over” if he fails to offer action on the cost of living crisis.
Starmer insisted on Friday that his party had been “leading” on the cost of living, as he promised to unveil “comprehensive” proposals to address soaring energy bills on Monday.