Politics

Labour's Keir Starmer should take inspiration from Joe Biden on strikes and picket lines

The Democrat president joined a protest outside a Michigan car plant on Tuesday, pledging solidarity with striking members of the United Auto Workers (UAW) union

Joe Biden has joined a picket line, a position Keir Starmer has banned his frontbench MPs from taking. CREDIT: Left - Gage Skidmore / Wikimedia Commons. Right: TUC

Joe Biden has become the first sitting US president to appear on a picket line, drawing a clear dividing line between himself and UK Labour leader Keir Starmer.

The Democrat president joined a protest outside a Michigan car plant on Tuesday, pledging solidarity with striking members of the United Auto Workers (UAW) union.

“You deserve a significant raise and other benefits. Let’s get back what we lost,” Biden told a cheering crowd.

The bold move contrasts starkly with Sir Keir Starmer’s ambivalence concerning industrial action. Last year, Starmer urged Labour MPs to stay away from picket lines, threatening shadow ministers who failed to do so with expulsion from the front bench.

“You can’t sit around the cabinet table and then go to a picket line,” he warned.

Eagle-eyed social media users have been quick to compare the two leaders.

“Breaking: Keir Starmer has expelled Joe Biden from the shadow cabinet,” one user posted on X, formerly known as Twitter, a quip that drew more than a thousand likes. “Keir Starmer must immediately sack Joe Biden,” another joked.

Game of Thrones actor Miltos Yerolemou also weighed in sardonically. “When @Keir_Starmer is to the right of Joe Biden then you know you’re f**ked.”

British unions have congratulated the president, but stopped short of criticising Sir Keir. ASLEF – the union representing British train drivers – “warmly welcomed” Biden’s presence on the picket.

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“Joe Biden has certainly never had any embarrassment about advocating for the rights of workers,” a spokesperson said. “We understand Keir’s position, we understand where he’s going, but we’ve always felt that there’s nothing improper about Labour MPs joining their constituents and trade union members on a picket line.”

Labour Unions ­­– an umbrella organisation coordinating the activities of the 11 trade unions affiliated with the party ­– described the president’s move as “great.”

What does Keir Starmer say about strikes?

Sir Keir Starmer is named after Labour’s founder, trade unionist Keir Hardie. But he has a history of ambivalence towards strikes.

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Last year, he removed Labour MP Sam Tarry from the opposition front bench after giving a TV interview on the picket line during a rail strike. “The vast majority of Labour MPs, party members, many in the shadow cabinet, and Labour supporters are fully behind workers taking strike action,” he said.

Other frontbenchers who joined pickets at the same were reprimanded but not removed from their roles.

Despite his picketing ban, Starmer has expressed provisional support for striking workers. “I completely understand why people are concerned and are considering industrial action,” he told BBC Radio Devon last year.

“We’ve had wages stuck for many, many years because the economy hasn’t been working under this government. I don’t want the strikes to go ahead. My wife works in the NHS – the last thing that anybody who works in NHS wants is to go on strike.”

The Labour leader has also pledged to repeal the Tory government’s heavy-handed anti-strike legislation.

The law ­– which received royal assent last month – dilutes a union’s power to enact industrial action, enforcing “minimum service levels” in six sectors, including the health service, rail, education, fire and border security.

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