Social media was alight after a radio interview with Labour's Shadow Justice Secretary Richard Burgon in which he failed to give a clear stance on possible strike action by trade unions. Burgon was being questioned by John Humphreys on BBC Radio 4's Today programme on whether he would supported strike action even if it was illegal.

It came after the general secretary of the Unite union, Britain's largest trade union, Len McCluskey said illegal strikes are "very likely" over the public sector pay cap. McCluskey said: "We will always stand shoulder to shoulder with our members. If the government have pushed us outside the law then they will have to stand the consequences.

"If they haven't managed to hit an artificial threshold that this government have foolishly put onto the statute books then I will stand by our members."

In 2016, the government passed the Trade Union Act which made it harder for unions to take strike action. The Act states that unless 50% of all eligible members of a trade union take part in a strike ballot, then any action would be illegal.

For those in public services, such as teachers and firefighters, that threshold is set at 40%. After McCluskey spoke about the high possibility of illegal strikes, Burgon was questioned about the comments on the BBC radio show.

He was asked repeatedly whether he would back strikes even if they were unlawful. But Burgon refused to answer directly, instead speaking about the plight of those affected by years of pay cuts.

The government is expected to announce the end of the public sector pay cap, closing the door on an austerity policy brought in by the coalition government in 2010.

On social media there was a mixed reaction to the interview. Some were left lost for words by Burgon's answers, while others attacked Humphreys and the BBC.

Humphries so venomous with Richard Burgon sounds like he's actually spitting. Never pretends to be balanced. Why we paying him? #r4today

— Christine Hudson (@ChristineHud) September 12, 2017

How on earth did someone of Richard Burgon's extreme limitations (being kind) end up in a senior position in HMO?

— Chris Deerin (@chrisdeerin) September 12, 2017

Full transcript:

John Humphreys: If Unite goes on strike without hitting the 50% threshold, would you support them?

Richard Burgon: Well, I think the real issue here is the only lawbreakers there have been where it comes to worker-employer relations are actually the government, because on July 26th the Supreme Court decided the Ministry of Justice of all things had been operating unlawfully with their employment tribunal fees.

JH: I'm asking you a completely different question. I'm asking you whether you would support Unite breaking the law.

RB: Nobody is talking about returning to industrial relations of the 70s. What some people are talking about, if you'll let me finish, if that's okay, is returning to the employment practices of the 1970s. We've got to understand that union members who are firefighters, who are dinner ladies, who are ambulance drivers, who are prison officers, have had pay cuts in real terms of up to 14% over the last few years.

JH: Let's accept that is the case. What I'm asking you is a very specific question and it really is terribly important isn't it, because you are a senior figure in the opposition, shadow justice secretary, shadow lord chancellor. I'm asking you whether if Unite were to go on strike, breaking the law, knowingly breaking the law as Len McCluskey has just posited, would you support them?

RB: These are complete hypotheticals.

JH: No they're not because Len McCluskey has raised it. If they were hypothetical Len McCluskey would have said so himself. He answered a direct question directly and said yes, he would consider going on strike, even if it meant breaking the law. I'm asking you for the third time whether you would accept that yourself.

RB: Well in relation to the question of turnout in strike ballots, what we've always been supportive of is encouraging as many people to vote as possible in any strike ballot including e-balloting... What a Labour government would do would be to repeal the Trade Union Act which is seeking to stop trade unions from taking action, to stop ordinary people, hundreds of thousands of whom are listening to your show this morning, from suffering a 14% pay cut in real terms.

JH: But I'm inviting you to either support or condemn the threat that has been made by Len McCluskey. You seem unwilling to do that either way.

RB: There isn't any illegal strike action taking place.

JH: It is being threatened, as you very well know. It is being threatened by Len McCluskey, and I'm asking you again whether you would support that threat or not.

RB: Well I think the real issue is rather than talking about one line from a speech or interview from a general secretary of a trade union, we should be talking about the reality faced by hundreds of thousands of your listeners. Nurses, care assistants, firefighters, prison officers, teaching assistants. All too often they get written out of this discussion. That is who this is about. What kind of government do we have that's made it so these hardworking decent people - trade unionists aren't some kind of other or some kind of enemy within - these hardworking people are faced with a situation where they're so desperate they're considering coordinating strike action.

Richard Burgon MP
Richard Burgon was asked several times if he would back illegal strike action House of Commons