Sir Keir Starmer is set to follow in the footsteps of Tony Blair by missing a major event in the trade union calendar, threatening a new row with the Left wing of his party.
The Labour leader has appeared to distance himself from trade unions in recent days and banned his frontbench MPs from attending picket lines – a move which led to a backlash from those with union backgrounds.
Now Labour officials have confirmed that Sir Keir will not be attending the Durham Miners’ Gala, a 150-year-old annual gathering in the North East where political speeches are historically delivered.
It is understood that the organisers were made aware that Sir Keir would not be able to attend because of a long-standing family commitment.
Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader, has not yet decided if she will be attending, a spokesman told the Telegraph. She previously spoke at the gala in 2017 and is backed by the Unite union.
The key addresses, made from the banner-covered balcony of the County Hotel, instead will be done by the general secretaries of trade unions in a “real break with tradition”.
Focus on key workers
Ross Forbes, director of the Durham Miners' Association, confirmed that Sir Keir had been invited but insisted there was “no political issue here”.
“We really want to focus on key workers. We are not having any high-profile politicians,” he said.
“The hotel balcony will be given over to key workers rather than the Labour hierarchy.”
The event was blacklisted by Labour modernisers including John Smith, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Tensions between trade union militants and the party led the event being snubbed for almost 30 years until it was attended regularly by Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn.
The move to miss the event, which has been described as the last remaining working-class demonstration in the country, comes as Sir Keir put himself at odds with the Left of the party over his response to the rail strikes.
One shadow cabinet minister told the Telegraph that Sir Keir was escalating tensions within the party by banning his frontbenchers from picket lines.
“There’s a question about whether it was wise to make this a touchstone issue and a disciplinary matter,” they said.
“I don’t think we should be escalating it really.”
However, they did criticise some of their colleagues for not looking ready for power after four MPs defied Sir Keir’s ultimatum to join striking workers on Tuesday.
“If we were in government we would not see ministers out on picket lines,” they said.
“We’re a serious opposition, we want to be in government, we need to behave like we’re in government, and that means people not rocking up on picket lines.”
On Thursday at least 16 of Sir Keir’s MPs, mostly from the left-wing Socialist Campaign Group, joined RMT staff striking outside train stations.
Silent on the strikes
Today the Labour leader has remained silent on the strikes and it is expected that the frontbench rebels will not be disciplined until after the strikes finish this week.
Alex Sobel, a shadow environment minister, did not respond to a request for comment from the Telegraph when asked if he was on the picket lines for a second day in a row.
Kate Osborne, a shadow Northern Ireland parliamentary private secretary, told her local newspaper the Shields Gazette on Thursday that striking rail workers “deserve our full support” and did not apologise for being on the picket line on Tuesday.
John McDonnell, the former shadow chancellor, said there can be “no doubt that every Labour MP should be out there on the picket line” supporting the striking workers.
“Our Party was founded to stand up for workers and to stand with them,” he added.
Lloyd Russell-Moyle, another Labour MP who was out speaking to striking workers on Thursday, told the Telegraph that Sir Keir had handled Labour’s response to the strikes “incredibly badly”.
“If you’re going to ban something, have the guts to say you’re going to ban it,” he said.
He warned the Labour leader not to get to the point where “Labour MPs are disciplined for speaking to their constituents.
“MPs would be disciplined for doing their jobs,” he added.