Lisa Nandy, shadow levelling up secretary, has challenged the authority of Sir Keir Starmer, meeting striking communication workers in defiance of an order from the Labour leader for his top team not to join picket lines.
Last week Starmer sacked Sam Tarry, a junior spokesman on transport, after he joined rail workers on a picket line and gave a series of unauthorised media interviews that deviated from the party line.
Starmer says he wants Labour to be “a party of government” but some Labour frontbenchers have ignored his edict not to join picket lines and have stood alongside strikers demanding higher pay regardless.
BT Group is among several private and public companies facing staff ire and strikes over pay rises perceived as too low to meet the needs of low-paid workers in an environment of soaring inflation.
Nandy’s allies say she told Starmer’s office in advance she intended to visit striking workers from BT and its Openreach subsidiary in her Wigan constituency, but did not say whether the Labour leader had sanctioned the move.
Starmer, asked last week if further shadow ministers would be fired for joining picket lines, said: “We take each case as it comes.” His office said Tarry was fired for breaching collective responsibility and giving “freelance” media interviews, not for standing on a picket line.
Nandy’s attendance on the picket line illustrates the splits in the Labour movement as Starmer tries to position Labour as a government-in-waiting that would use its weight to press for negotiated pay settlements.
Several shadow officials joined CWU picket lines across the UK on Monday to talk to BT workers, including Nandy in Wigan, Imran Hussain in Bradford, Justin Madders in Birkenhead and Labour whip Navendu Mishra in Stockport.
Dave Ward, general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, told the Financial Times that the strikes had received “a lot of support from shadow cabinet members and Labour MPs”, adding that “Starmer is going to have to get his act together and develop a position that his party agrees with”.
Meanwhile, Ward said the CWU would push ahead with further “rolling” industrial action across the BT group, likely focusing on particular regions and departments that are of strategic importance.
The union is protesting against a £1,500 pay rise given to 58,000 frontline workers at BT Group in April, equating to between 3 and 8 per cent depending on their base salary, averaging a 4.8 per cent increase.
Ward called on Philip Jansen, BT’s chief executive, to “get your hands dirty, get in the room, and start negotiating”, adding that the CWU would be calling a summit with Jansen, BT chair Adam Crozier and other members of senior management in the coming weeks.
Negotiations with BT management could look at several things beyond “core figures” of pay offered earlier this year, according to Ward, including add-ons and possible consolidated pay deals.
BT said in a statement: “At the start of this year, we were in exhaustive discussions with the CWU that lasted for two months, trying hard to reach an agreement on pay. When it became clear that we were not going to reach an accord, we took the decision to go ahead with awarding our team members and frontline colleagues the highest pay award in more than 20 years, effective 1st April.”
“This used to be an iconic company, the workers would have been proud to work for it,” Ward added. “What Jansen is underestimating is . . . how much anger there is.”
Jansen received a 32 per cent pay increase to £3.5mn in the last financial year, owing to previous share awards.