A Labour former shadow minister has backed calls for a general strike as leader Sir Keir Starmer struggled to contain a row with the unions and the left-wing of his party over the sacking of Sam Tarry.
Mr Tarry, who is in a relationship with deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner, was fired from his role as a shadow transport minister after publicly backing the rail strikes and giving a round of media interviews without permission from his party’s headquarters.
The move was met with fury by unions and the left-wing of the party.
Speaking to Sky News, John McDonnell described it as a “severe mistake”, accused Sir Keir of “misreading the mood of the public” and backed calls for a general strike.
Labour has not officially supported the industrial action, but has criticised the Government and urged ministers to get involved in negotiations.
The MP for Hayes and Harlington told Sky News: “I don’t know who is advising Keir Starmer, but this is a completely unnecessary row that’s been invented just at a time when the Tories are tearing themselves apart, and we’ve got the maximum opportunity I think to gain an advantage in the polls that will build the support to take us into a government.”
He added: “This is an unnecessary dispute and whoever has advised Keir Starmer on this, I think he has made a severe mistake.”
Asked about the general strike proposed by RMT general secretary Mick Lynch, the Labour former shadow chancellor said: “If you look at the ballots that are taking place across the trade union movement, we are talking about millions of workers now voting for industrial action. So, naturally, what people are saying as well, why not co-ordinate that?
“Well, I support co-ordinated action, because if that results in a decent pay rise for people, they are protected against the cost-of-living crisis. I think that’s the most effective thing to do.”
Urging the party to take a different stance on the strikes, Mr McDonnell said: “I think mistakes have been made from the very beginning. We need to stand back and actually start trying to secure unity across not just the whole labour and trade union movement, but across the country overall. I think Keir and his advisers have completely misread the situation. I think they’ve misread the mood within the labour and trade union movement. But I also think they have misread the mood amongst the general public.”
Condemnation from unions, Labour MPs and other figures arrived shortly after the sacking.
MP for York Central Rachael Maskell called for the Labour leader to visit picket lines on Wednesday night, while GMB general secretary Gary Smith said it was a “huge own goal” for Labour to “turn a Tory transport crisis into a Labour story”.
Meanwhile, former Labour deputy prime minister Lord John Prescott tweeted a photo of himself addressing striking miners when he was shadow transport secretary in 1984.
Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association (TSSA) general secretary Manuel Cortes, RMT boss Mr Lynch and Unite general secretary Sharon Graham all criticised Sir Keir’s decision.
Mr Tarry is a former official of the TSSA rail union.
Announcing he would be removed from the frontbench, a Labour spokesperson said: “The Labour Party will always stand up for working people fighting for better pay, terms and conditions at work.
“This isn’t about appearing on a picket line.
“Members of the frontbench sign up to collective responsibility.
“That includes media appearances being approved and speaking to agreed frontbench positions.
“As a government-in-waiting, any breach of collective responsibility is taken extremely seriously and for these reasons Sam Tarry has been removed from the frontbench.”
In a statement, Mr Tarry said it had been a “privilege” to serve on Labour’s top team.
“I remain committed to supporting the striking rail workers, and campaigning for a Labour victory at the next general election, which I will fight for relentlessly from the backbenches,” he added.
Rail passengers suffered fresh travel chaos on Wednesday after thousands of workers walked out on strike, crippling services across the country.
A number of backbench Labour MPs also joined picket lines, including Liverpool West Derby MP Ian Byrne, Brent Central MP Dawn Butler, Birmingham Hall Green MP Tahir Ali, Gateshead MP Ian Mearns and South Shields MP Emma Lewell-Buck.
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