John McDonnell Guardian Opinion 28 July 2022

It was 1977. I was in my mid-20s and had just moved down from the north to west London. A group of Asian women working at a film-developing factory in Brent had started a strike for better pay and working conditions. Trade union branches across London and my local constituency Labour party in Hayes were sending delegations to join the women in their saris on the picket lines. This was the historic Grunwick strike, led by the now famous, heroic Jayaben Desai.

I went with our CLP delegation regularly. It was a tough and, at times, violent dispute as the police escorted a bus full of scabs brought in by the company to break the strike and teach the women a lesson.

The Labour and trade union movement came together as one to campaign against the exploitation of these women. Joining the picket lines to show solidarity were some of the most prominent members of the movement, and among those who joined the women’s picket line were Labour cabinet ministers. Not shadow ministers but cabinet ministers actually serving in government at the time, including, famously, Shirley Williams.

Labour MPs joining picket lines was not exceptional; it was expected of them. The trade union movement had founded the Labour party to serve as the voice of labour in parliament. To be a Labour party member in those days, you had to demonstrate that you were a trade union member and what trade union members do is support one another. There was no exemption from the basic duty to show solidarity just because party members and trade unionists had selected you to be an MP and serve the movement as a minister or shadow minister.

So how is it that we have arrived at a situation where a Labour leader is instructing shadow ministers not to attend picket lines and has sacked a shadow minister, Sam Tarry, seemingly for doing so?

The recent Forde report into the operation of the Labour party spends considerable time exploring what it described as the culture of the party. The report exposes just how far the party has travelled from its original ethos. The Labour family survived, and at times thrived, by accepting it was a broad church of political views, upholding a mutual respect for those differing views and, above all else embracing, at its heart, solidarity.

But the clique of advisers that now surrounds Keir Starmer and appears to control the party seems drunk on its own power and to have lost all appreciation of the party’s traditions of mutual respect and solidarity.

It’s not hard to imagine the line of thought of those advising Starmer on the strikes: it’s political painting by numbers. The focus groups don’t like strikes. They will blame the unions and anyone who supports them for the disruption caused, egged on by a rising tide of abuse in the rightwing media. So the advice to the leader will be keep away from any association with the unions at all costs.

Crass decisions are then made not to back our unions in disputes, no matter how just their cause, then to order shadow ministers not to join picket lines no matter what their membership or association with the union in dispute. This isn’t just a complete misreading of the mood within the Labour and trade union movement but also among the general public.

The anger at Starmer’s actions among trade unions is palpable. This may not matter to the leader’s team when the Tories are so helpfully self-immolating, but when times get tougher and the trade union cavalry is needed to save the leader, they may remember who was and who wasn’t on this summer’s picket lines.

In terms of the general public, the reason that there is an unprecedented level of sympathy for these strikes is not just down to the impressive straight-talking eloquence of the RMT’s Mick Lynch. It’s because millions are being hit by the same cost of living crisis, which has become the key mobilising factor in the massive wave of industrial disputes that is currently building.

The risk is that when the millions involved go to the polls next, they will be asking the question of the Labour leader, where were you when we needed you? Whatever diktats from the Labour leader’s office, there is a weightier responsibility on the shoulders of Labour members, whatever position they hold. It is to stand up for one another in the Labour and trade union movement in this summer of solidarity.

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