Sir Keir Starmer risks another row with Labour’s trade union backers by skipping Durham Miners’ Gala

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Sir Keir Starmer is risking another row with Labour’s trade union backers by missing next month’s Durham Miners’ Gala.

The Labour leader will be absent when the showpiece event in the unions’ summer calendar returns from a two-year break due to the Covid pandemic.

This year’s gathering, on 9th July, would have been Sir Keir’s first opportunity to attend the event as Labour leader.

But Sir Keir’s spokesman said organisers had been informed ‘a while ago that he couldn’t attend due to a long-standing family commitment’. 

The Labour leader’s absence means he will also remain away from the scene of his Beergate row, which has placed his immediate political future in jeopardy.

Sir Keir has dramatically pledged to resign as Labour leader if he is fined by police for a breach of Covid rules, following his boozy curry at Durham Miners’ Hall in April last year.

Both he and Labour deputy Angela Rayner last week returned questionnaires to Durham Constabulary over the event, which is alleged to have busted ‘Step 2’ lockdown rules in place at the time.

Labour has repeatedly insisted the indoor gathering did not breach regulations and was a ‘work event’.

As well as Beergate, Sir Keir is also under pressure over his stance on this week’s national rail strikes – with union leaders and Labour left-wingers furious at his decision to ban his party’s front bench from joining picket lines.

More MPs defied the Labour leader today by joining rail workers at train stations across the country.

This included Sheffield Hallam MP Olivia Blake, who revealed she had quit as a shadow minister last week for ‘personal reasons’.

This year's Durham Miners' Gala, on 9th July, would have been Sir Keir Starmer's first opportunity to attend the event as Labour leader

This year’s Durham Miners’ Gala, on 9th July, would have been Sir Keir Starmer’s first opportunity to attend the event as Labour leader

Sir Keir's predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn, attended the event in July 2019. Organisers have been forced to cancel for the last two years due to Covid

Sir Keir’s predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn, attended the event in July 2019. Organisers have been forced to cancel for the last two years due to Covid

Ed Miliband became the first Labour leader to attend the event in 23 years when he gave a speech in 2012

Ed Miliband became the first Labour leader to attend the event in 23 years when he gave a speech in 2012

Both Sir Keir’s immediate predecessors, Jeremy Corbyn and Ed Miliband, attended the Durham Miners’ Gala while they were in charge of Labour.

Billed as the largest remaining working-class demonstration in the country, Mr Miliband became the first Labour leader to attend the event in 23 years when he gave a speech in 2012.

Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, the leaders of New Labour, both declined to attend when they were at the top of the party.

Sir Keir’s absence could further fuel tensions between himself and union leaders, following criticism of his stance over this week’s national rail strikes.

Unite general secretary Sharon Graham – who is scheduled to speak at next month’s Durham Miners’ Gala – this week blasted Sir Keir for instructing Labour MPs not to join rail workers on picket lines across the country.

She accused the Labour leader of ‘hiding’ over the dispute and warned him it was ‘time to decide whose side you are on’.

Sir Keir was heading for another Labour meltdown today on the second day of national rail strikes.

In an act of defiance against the Labour leader, a number of the party’s MPs again joined picket lines in support of the rail workers’ walkout.

One even declared: ‘Victory to the rail strikes.’

As a bitter internal party row blew up again, senior figures from Labour’s left issued fresh condemnation of Sir Keir’s order for the party’s front bench not to join picket lines.

On Tuesday’s first day of strikes, a number defied the Labour leader’s plea and are now awaiting punishment by chief whip Sir Alan Campbell. 

But Sir Keir is facing pushback from members of his shadow cabinet over the threats of disciplinary action and is being urged to drop the issue. 

Sir Keir has also opened the door to another Labour row after he signalled he could support below-inflation pay rises for other parts of the public sector.

Teachers, nurses, doctors, civil servants and postal workers are all also considering strike action.

It is feared the train strikes could turn into a wider ‘summer of discontent’, as other unions also clash with bosses over pay settlements during the cost-of-living crisis. 

Sir Keir failed to outright back union demands for inflation-linked pay rises for public sector workers and instead pointed to the work of pay review bodies in deciding on wage hikes.

Emma Hardy, who used to be a parliamentary aide to Sir Keir Starmer and was a shadow minister as recently as March last year, was pictured joining a picket line in Hull

Emma Hardy, who used to be a parliamentary aide to Sir Keir Starmer and was a shadow minister as recently as March last year, was pictured joining a picket line in Hull

Birkenhead MP Mick Whitley joined rail workers outside Liverpool Lime Street Station and declared: 'Victory to the rail strikes'

Birkenhead MP Mick Whitley joined rail workers outside Liverpool Lime Street Station and declared: ‘Victory to the rail strikes’

Wansbeck MP Ian Lavery, who was Labour Party chair under Jeremy Corbyn's leadership, joined RMT members outside Berwick upon Tweed station

Wansbeck MP Ian Lavery, who was Labour Party chair under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, joined RMT members outside Berwick upon Tweed station

Today, a number of Labour MPs again joined striking rail workers on picket lines across the country.

Emma Hardy, who used to be a parliamentary aide to Sir Keir and was a shadow minister as recently as March last year, was pictured joining a picket in Hull.

Fellow former shadow minister Karl Turner also joined striking workers in the Yorkshire city.

Birkenhead MP Mick Whitley joined rail workers outside Liverpool Lime Street Station.

He posted on Twitter: ‘I’m back on the picket lines to support our friends in the RMT union. Throughout this dispute, ministers have obstructed negotiations and refused to get around the table.

‘They want to sow division amongst working people, but we won’t let them. Victory to the rail strikes.’

Wansbeck MP Ian Lavery, who was Labour Party chair under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, joined RMT members outside Berwick upon Tweed station.

Meanwhile, former shadow home secretary Diane Abbott lashed out at frontbencher Emily Thornberry, who last night insisted a Labour government would not be ‘picking a side’ in the rail dispute.

Ms Abbott told the shadow attorney general: ‘I thought when you joined the Labour Party you had picked a side…working people.’

At least four Labour frontbenchers defied Sir Keir’s orders on Tuesday’s first day of rail strikes and joined picket lines.

Former shadow home secretary Diane Abbott lashed out at frontbencher Emily Thornberry on Twitter over Sir Keir's position on strikes

Former shadow home secretary Diane Abbott lashed out at frontbencher Emily Thornberry on Twitter over Sir Keir’s position on strikes

There was no sign this morning that senior MPs – such as serving shadow ministers and parliamentary aides – had once again rebelled against their Labour leader’s wishes.

But the row over Sir Keir’s threat to discipline those who did join Tuesday’s picket lines continued to fester.

One shadow minister told the Guardian it would be ‘outrageous’ to caution, or even sack, Labour MPs for showing support for striking rail workers.

The newspaper also reported that Labour whips were trying to encourage those frontbenchers who rebelled to issue public apologies, with the risk of disciplinary action if they did not.

Sir Keir’s spokesman has denied that the Labour leader’s position on strikes had been undermined by MPs joining picket lines. 

‘The position has been followed by the vast majority of the frontbench and he’s set out his views clearly on that,’ the spokesman said.

Ahead of Tuesday’s first day of strikes, a letter was sent to shadow cabinet ministers warning them not to join picket lines, with the message then being passed to other members of Labour’s front bench. 

Decisions by Labour’s chief whip about disciplinary action are set to be taken in the ‘next few days’. 

Sir Keir has also set a course for another Labour row and a battle with the unions by failing to endorse union calls for inflation-linked pay rises during the cost-of-living crisis.

The Government has repeatedly urged wage restraint in the public sector over fears of a wage/price spiral that could further fuel rocketing inflation rates.

The Bank of England has forecast the inflation rate could reach as high as 11 per cent  this autumn.

More than 90% of office workers in London were forced to WFH on the first day of the RMT's rail strikes

More than 90% of office workers in London were forced to WFH on the first day of the RMT’s rail strikes

Raising the threat of further strike action across the public sector, many union leaders are calling for inflation-linked pay rises for their members.

But Sir Keir shied away from backing public sector workers from getting rises in line with inflation as a general matter of principle. 

He spokesman said: ‘We are well aware that people are suffering as a result of the cost of living crisis that is the result of this Government’s failure to act. 

‘We believe that the Government should ensure that workers are treated decently and fairly.

‘But we respect the work of the public sector pay review bodies and it’s their job to come forward with recommendations.

‘We’re not going to second-guess or pick numbers.’

Asked whether that meant Starmer would support whatever level of pay was recommended by the review bodies, even if it was below inflation, the spokesman added: ‘Our starting point would be to look at what the pay review bodies come forward with and our assumption would be that that would be what we would support.’

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