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Sir Tony Blair has reignited Labour’s internal row over public sector pay as he urged the party to distance itself from widespread strike action by workers.
The former prime minister warned Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer it would be ‘very damaging’ for the party to support a wave of public sector strikes, which he insisted Britain ‘can’t afford’ at the moment.
Following last week’s national rail strikes, there are growing fears of a ‘summer of discontent’ with mass walkouts also being planned by teachers, doctors, firefighters, Royal Mail workers and BT staff.
Sir Keir has faced fury from Labour’s trade union backers for failing to wholeheartedly back workers taking strike action, as they demand large pay rises during the cost-of-living crisis.
The Labour leader also caused anger with his decision to ban his party’s frontbenchers from joining picket lines in support of striking rail workers.
And he has opened the door to another Labour row after signalling he could support below-inflation pay rises for the public sector.
But Sir Tony, who led Labour between 1994 and 2007, insisted Sir Keir was right not to bow to ‘huge pressure’ to support widespread industrial action.
The former Labour premier’s intervention attracted an immediate backlash from the party’s left-wing, who have been furious at Sir Keir’s reluctance to support strikes.
Angry Labour members told Sir Tony, who made a multi-million pound fortune after leaving Number 10, that he ‘stands for the few, not the many’.
Sir Tony Blair, who led Labour between 1994 and 2007, insisted Sir Keir Starmer was right not to bow to ‘huge pressure’ to support widespread industrial action
The Labour leader caused anger with his decision to ban his party’s frontbenchers from joining picket lines in support of striking rail workers
Following last week’s national rail strikes, there are growing fears of a ‘summer of discontent’ with mass walkouts also being planned by teachers, doctors, firefighters, Royal Mail workers and BT staff
Speaking to BBC Newsnight, Sir Tony – who held a ‘Blairfest’ conference in London yesterday – warned Sir Keir that he could not be seen to be supporting large-scale strikes if he wanted to win the next general election.
‘You can have every sympathy for people who, as a result of the situation the economy is in – the cost-of-living crisis, high inflation – that they’re angry about the situation, anxious about their terms and conditions of employment,’ the ex-PM said.
‘You can understand why these movements for strike action take place.
‘But, the truth is, if Labour wants to form a government, it’s got to be very clear – the country at the moment can’t afford a whole wave of public sector strikes.’
Sir Tony declined to give his support to public sector workers getting inflation-linked pay rises, at a time when soaring inflation rates are forecast to reach 11 per cent later this year.
He added: ‘Each pay settlement is a matter of negotiation, in the public sector, but I think for Labour to support a wave of public sector strikes is going to be very damaging for Labour.
‘I know it will come under huge pressure. But one of the things you’ve got to do in opposition, and you’re really aiming for government, is you’ve got to put yourself in the position you would be if you became the government.
‘I was lucky when we were in government, the economy was strong, we were able to invest in public services, the issue of strikes didn’t really arise during my 10 years as prime minister.
‘We’re in a different situation today if Labour comes to power – it’s going to be a much tougher economic situation.
‘But the country has got to know you’re prepared to take the tough decisions that allow the country to get back on a pathway where you can invest in public services.’
Former shadow home secretary Diane Abbott, a staunch left-wing ally of Jeremy Corbyn, lashed out at Sir Tony’s comments as Britons face the cost-of-living crisis
Sir Keir’s predecessor Jeremy Corbyn was keen to distance himself from Blair’s New Labour government during his time as Labour leader.
But Sir Tony urged Sir Keir to embrace New Labour’s legacy and point to the record of his administration in areas such as schools and the NHS in the run-up to the next election.
‘That’s, in my view, a better way and I understand the pressure Labour will come under on public sector strikes,’ he said.
‘But it’s got to think of itself as a government in waiting which is why I support what Keir is doing.’
Former shadow home secretary Diane Abbott, a staunch left-wing ally of Mr Corbyn, lashed out at Sir Tony’s comments as Britons face the cost-of-living crisis.
She said: ‘UK wages falling at the fastest rate for more than two decades. But millionaire Tony Blair refuses to condemn below inflation pay rises says the Labour party should not support strikes.’
Momentum, the Labour pressure group borne out of Mr Corbyn’s two Labour leadership campaigns, said of Sir Tony: ‘He stands for the few, not the many.’