In a gritty promotional video for his 2020 Labour leadership bid, Keir Starmer called himself a “proud trade unionist” who had worked with unions “all my life”, including as a legal observer on the picket line in Wapping when Rupert Murdoch took on the print unions.
As RMT members prepared to walk out on the first of three days of industrial action this week, however, Starmer made clear not only that he would not be observing this particular industrial dispute at close quarters – but he expected his frontbench team to stay away, too.
The Conservatives have spent weeks somewhat desperately attempting to blame Starmer for the strikes despite the fact that the RMT is not affiliated to Labour, and Starmer himself had said he did not want the action to go ahead.
Banning even the most junior frontbenchers from attending their local picket line, in a memo on Monday, appeared to be an attempt to prevent the Tories gaining any more ammunition for these attacks.
Yet the main impact of Starmer’s diktat was to spark a public row with frontbench colleagues, just as Labour is keen to present itself as the party of government.
At least four junior frontbenchers defied the leader’s instructions and proudly tweeted pictures of themselves alongside RMT members with their flags and banners on Tuesday morning.
Starmer will now have to decide whether to discipline them – though Labour sources say no final decision will be made until the weekend.
Labour’s Scottish leader, Anas Sarwar, handpicked by Starmer for the role when his Corbynite predecessor, Richard Leonard, was ousted, took a different approach, visiting striking rail workers to show solidarity while stressing he blamed the government for failing to resolve the dispute.
Starmer’s allies are bullish: they believe picking a fight with the party’s leftwingers will remind the public that he is very different to his predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn, and underline the fact that Starmer’s Labour looks “outwards, not inwards”.
And neither do they mind a war of words with leftwing union leaders such as Unite’s Sharon Graham, who has already cut back financial contributions to the party as she focuses more on winning battles in the workplace than at the ballot box.
Yet many MPs privately expressed concern about the picket line ban. Three of those the Guardian spoke to, from different wings of the party, described it as “imbecilic”, “pointless” and “dumb”.
Some raised questions on ideological grounds because it appeared to signal that Starmer is distancing himself from the trade unions that play such a key role in Labour’s past and present.
That appeared to contrast with his prospectus for the Labour leadership, in which he promised to “work shoulder to shoulder with trade unions to stand up for working people”.
Indeed, Labour voters tend to support the action being taken by the RMT. A YouGov poll carried out this week showed 45% of the public were against the RMT strike, with 37% in favour. But among Labour voters, 65% were in favour, and 18% opposed.
Other MPs questioned whether Starmer had merely played into the Conservatives’ hands, by stoking an internecine row – and drawing more attention than necessary to the Labour MPs who did attend picket lines.
It is also unclear how Starmer will respond if there are further strikes later in the year involving unions affiliated to Labour, such as Unison, whose members – nurses, for example – may evoke more public sympathy than rail workers.
Frustrated MPs have long complained they are unsure what Starmer stands for – what his political project is. After Tuesday’s fresh outbreak of internal tension, some fear a worryingly large part of it is about drawing dividing lines within his own party.