Solidarity: This MP just cancelled a keynote speech to avoid crossing picket line

It's a welcome contrast to how some Labour MPs have acted in the past.

Labour’s former Shadow Education Secretary has pulled out of a high-profile lecture at the University of Manchester after realising she’d have to break a strike by lecturers. 

Lucy Powell cancelled her speech for the annual Harry Street lecture on Thursday 22 February when she was informed it clashed with a strike by the University and College Union (UCU).

The Manchester Central MP said she does not cross picket lines, with UCU members due to walk out in the first of 14 days of strikes in a growing row over pensions.

It represents a boost in the union’s fight to protect lecturers’ pensions, with Powell urging university body Universities UK to return to talks with the union in order to resolve the dispute.

UCU members at Manchester and 61 other universities across the UK will walk out later this month as part of an escalating programme of strikes over a four-week period. 

Universities are planning to slash the benefits of the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) pension scheme, with the UCU claiming it would leave a typical lecturer almost £10,000 a year worse off in retirement than under the current set-up.

At the time of writing the annual lecture remains live, and notes: “Since her election Lucy has campaigned hard against the Government’s cuts to Manchester’s public services.” Last May, the University of Manchester revealed plans to axe 171 jobs – including 140 academic positions.

In the recent strike ballot UCU members overwhelmingly backed industrial action, with 88% of members who voted backing action on a high turnout of 58%. At Manchester 90% backed strike action on a turnout of 55%.

A spokesperson for the UCU told Left Foot Forward over 2,000 people were balloted – with even more joining since the strike was announced.

The University of Manchester UCU branch is understood to be the largest in the country.

Manchester Central MP Lucy Powell said:

“I was due to give an annual lecture at the university on the day of the strike, but I have informed the university that I won’t be attending. I don’t cross picket lines and my attendance would send the wrong signal.

“I hope that Universities UK will get back round the table with the UCU to resolve this dispute.”

UCU general secretary Sally Hunt said:

“We welcome Lucy Powell’s decision to cancel her appearance at the University of Manchester as a show of support for striking staff. This is yet another disruption to university life which could be avoided if the employers step back from their damaging proposals.

“It’s time Universities UK listened to the many voices urging them to commit to meaningful negotiations.”

Powell’s decision stands in stark contrast to some Labour figures in previous years – with Tristram Hunt widely condemned for crossing picket lines in 2014 to give a lecture on…socialism. Staff were taking action against real-terms pay cuts at the time.

UPDATE: A spokesperson for the University of Manchester said the lecture will be rearranged. 

Josiah Mortimer is Editor of Left Foot Forward. Follow him on Twitter.

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by becoming a Left Foot Forward Supporter today.