Labour leader Keir Starmer was right to sack Jeremy Corbyn-like Sam Tarry over rail strike picket – Brian Wilson

I must confess to having never heard of Sam Tarry before he was sacked as shadow minister for buses and local transport this week.

Labour MP Sam Tarry joins Communication Workers Union members on the picket line at BT Tower (Picture: Maighna Nanu/PA)
Labour MP Sam Tarry joins Communication Workers Union members on the picket line at BT Tower (Picture: Maighna Nanu/PA)

A little catching-up did not produce a very edifying story. A longstanding member of the Corbyn elite, he was touted for seats which rejected him before emerging as MP for Ilford South in 2019.

The expected successor to the retiring MP was a successful council leader who suddenly faced personal allegations on the eve of the selection. He was suspended and Tarry was anointed. The Labour Party then cleared his rival, who remained council leader throughout.

In the interim, Tarry does not appear to have won local hearts and minds. All ten branches of Ilford South Labour Party have voted to deny him automatic reselection. The Corbynistas, it is rumoured abroad, are seeking a safer billet for him.

Given his background, Keir Starmer’s decision to offer Tarry a front-bench role seems generous if predictably ill-rewarded. Was he ever going to devote himself to the diligent advancement of local transport policy? Unlikely.

So this week, he duly gave Starmer a problem – ignore him or sack him. With full knowledge this was the dilemma he was posing for his leader, as opposed to his spiritual one in exile, Tarry put himself about to offer interviews from the RMT picket line. So Starmer sacked him, as he had to.

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Labour has a policy and Tarry is entitled to espouse another one. There is no denial of his freedom of speech, only a defence of collective responsibility which is a prerequisite for the credibility of any government, actual or prospective. Anyone with Labour’s interests at heart will not ask why Starmer sacked him but why Tarry set out to put him in that position.

Given the cast of microphone-hungry blasts from the past who queued up to attack Starmer, it is pretty clear this was no maverick act but the signal for a fight-back from those who led Labour to its worst election defeat since 1935 and bequeathed such an enormous mountain to climb.

There will always be a market for the view that Labour’s proper place is on every picket line while the question of electability is a bourgeois distraction. To this school of thought, there is no greater proof of how left-wing they are than to show absolute disinterest in whether there is ever another Labour government. We heard a lot of that this week, dressed up as high principle.

One thing Tarry might have got right though was when he said the dispute “would not be taking place under a Labour government, which would ensure rail workers receive a fair wage”. That is probably true. Labour under Tony Blair was good on industrial relations because there was a general sense of shared objectives, including an extension of workers’ rights in many directions.

That is the purpose of Labour governments. They create an entirely different environment in which society changes in myriad incremental ways as well as major ones, like the reduction of child poverty and raising living standards. But first you need to elect Labour governments and anyone who thinks that unconditional cheer-leading for every strike will achieve that is seriously deluded.

Labour’s role in opposition has to be as an advocate of fairness and a conciliator in the interests of those who have no bargaining power, as well as unions who have weapons at their disposal. The idea that Keir Starmer should become a mirror image of Grant Shapps, as partisans seeking a political victory rather than encouraging a settlement, is unappealing.

John McDonnell is now calling for a general strike. Will that be the next test of true socialism for Starmer to be judged by? Is Tarry’s demand that no workers should accept less than the rate of inflation (currently heading to 12 per cent) becoming the new litmus test for socialist purity?

If Starmer tried to accommodate whatever agenda these voices care to set, he would also be reconciling himself to the certainty of losing. Far better to address that reality now than become its hostage.

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