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8 August 2022

Sam Tarry: Starmer’s position on public sector pay “will totally break down”

The sacked shadow transport minister warns that the Labour leadership is making “catastrophic errors” by “creating a punch-up with our own side”.

By Rachel Wearmouth

“I’ve never seen such a bunch of petulant children in charge of Labour in my lifetime,” Labour’s Sam Tarry told me over a coffee in his East London constituency.

The outburst of frustration hardly came as a surprise. The Ilford South MP was sacked as shadow transport minister on 27 July after joining a rail workers’ picket line and, as Keir Starmer put it, “making up policy on the hoof” on public sector pay rises during a media interview that was authorised by Labour HQ. 

Tarry believes below-inflation pay deals are “unacceptable” and that Starmer should prepare for further dissent as nurses, barristers and other public sector workers walk out during Britain’s “summer of discontent”. The 39-year-old is firmly on Labour’s left and has never been a fan of Starmer’s cautious approach to opposition, despite accepting a promotion to the party’s front bench. 

The son of a Church of England clergyman, Tarry was raised in Ilford and became a cleaner at Redbridge College at the age of 15. He went on to work at the anti-racism charity Hope Not Hate, the transport union TSSA and was president of the left-leaning Class think tank. Tarry served as a Labour councillor in Barking and Dagenham from 2010 to 2018, before being elected MP for Ilford South in 2019, defeating Mike Gapes, who had left Labour to join Change UK.

Now, Tarry is embroiled in a fierce selection battle to remain Labour’s candidate in Ilford South after local members voted for an open contest. He is likely to face Jas Athwal, the leader of Redbridge Council, who stood to contest the seat in 2019 but was suspended from the Labour Party on the eve of the vote following sexual harassment allegations. He was later cleared by the party of wrongdoing and reinstated.

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The timing of the complaint was openly questioned at the time by Athwal’s allies, including the shadow health secretary and Ilford North MP, Wes Streeting. The selection contest, likely to be held in September, will be something of a flashpoint between the party’s left and right; Tarry has alleged that “rule-breaking” and “voter fraud” took place during the process to trigger the ballot. He has the backing of some shadow cabinet members, including Ed Miliband and Tulip Siddiq, and insists he has no plan to stand in Jon Cruddas’s Dagenham and Rainham seat (Cruddas is stepping down from parliament and Tarry ran his 2007 deputy leadership campaign). 

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“I’ve shredded a lot of my political credibility over the last three years with the wider movement and trade union movement by being on the front bench through some very difficult times,” Tarry said.

“And actually, in some ways, it probably helps if a lot more people don’t just throw themselves under the bus when there’s an opportunity for left-leaning MPs. My view has always been that we should occupy as many positions in the shadow ministerial team as possible. We shouldn’t cede everything to the right.”

In the Sky News interview that triggered his firing, Tarry said that “every worker should get a pay rise in line with inflation”, which the Bank of England has predicted will reach 13 per cent by the end of this year. Labour’s policy is that workers deserve “fair” rises agreed through negotiations rather than political interventions.

“I’ve been sacked for going on telly and saying I think British workers deserve to be paid in line with inflation,” Tarry said. “I said that for each organisation, each business and in each industry or sector of course it needs to be negotiated around the table.

“But we have no position. So that means our position, essentially, if you read between the lines, is that we are actually committed to having a below-inflation pay rise for British workers, which means the Labour Party’s position, you can infer, is that we’re committed to a pay cut in real terms for people.

“That is totally unacceptable to me. I believe it’s totally unacceptable to a number of people in the shadow cabinet. I believe it will totally break down over the next few months. We are going to see a situation where, say, low-paid nurses or government workers are going on strike, like cleaners. Are we really going to be saying to them they can’t be brought up to the current level to survive?”

After a lost decade for living standards, Tarry believes building pressure will make Labour’s annual conference in September a dangerous moment for Starmer. The left-wing activist group Momentum is preparing motions calling for Labour to back “inflation-proof” pay rises.

“I think it’s going to be very difficult for Keir, and if the leadership double down and basically try to say, ‘Oh, this is about the continuation of this completely fanciful thing about smashing the left, attacking the trade unions,’ that’s not going to win us the election.

“Quite frankly, it’s petulant, and real grown-ups would actually get everyone back around the table, unite the party, pull the trade unions back on board, build up our war chest and then go on to win the general election.”

Tarry is a formidable campaigner in internal Labour elections: he ran his now partner Angela Rayner’s successful deputy leadership campaign in 2020, and Jeremy Corbyn’s victorious 2016 leadership campaign. 

He acknowledged that any pay deals must be “sustainable”, and said he believes Starmer can win a general election, but maintains that the lowest-paid workers should receive inflation-level pay rises.

The ban on shadow ministers visiting striking workers, he argued, “created a false dividing line” in the Labour Party and its shadow cabinet that is also splitting the trade union movement.

“That is not about being serious about government, that’s about serious political misjudgement,” he said. “We’re making catastrophic errors, creating a punch-up with our own side. How the dickens are we actually going to get into government with this lack of political foresight, this lack of political strategy. I find it deeply, deeply frustrating, because it is completely avoidable.”

New policy is key, he said: “There is a pathway to power that isn’t basically aping the Conservatives. I think it’s almost like we need to get back to the basics.

“We’ve got to come out really clear with key policies that every single person understands are fully costed,” Tarry said. “We are not going to win just by cosying up to big businesses in the Square Mile. We win big business over by speaking about our investment strategy.”

Tarry also believes there is room for Labour to be more radical on electoral reform. The Liberal Democrats would reportedly insist on the introduction of proportional representation without a referendum in return for a deal with Labour in a hung parliament. And Tarry will be among the voices pressuring Starmer to back the abolition of first-past-the-post.

“The Tories have an agenda that is to stay in power,” he said. “Let’s make some tough decisions on keeping Labour in power.

“The Tories are basically gerrymandering [constituency] boundaries. They are attacking trade union funding. They are attacking rights at work. And there are things like mandatory voter ID, these voter suppression tactics, which are lifted straight out of the Trumpian rulebook.

“We ought to be saying: there’s not a majority of people in this country who support this Conservative agenda and there is not a majority of people in this country that are for an extreme immigration strategy.

“If we actually had an electoral system that reflected that, it would mean we could have progressive forces governing this country far more than they do at the moment.”

[See also: Keir Starmer: picket lines U-turn shows Lisa Nandy’s strength]

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