Sam Tarry: Keir Starmer’s stance on public sector pay ‘will totally crumble’

“I’ve never seen such an irritable bunch of kids at the head of Labor in my life,” Labour’s Sam Tarry told me over coffee in his East London constituency.

The outburst of frustration was hardly a surprise. The MP for Ilford South was sacked as shadow transport minister on July 27 after joining a railway workers’ picket line and, as Keir Starmer put it, ‘inventing clog policy’ on the public sector wage increases during a media interview authorized by Labor HQ.

Tarry thinks pay deals below inflation are ‘unacceptable’ and Starmer should brace for further divisiveness as nurses, lawyers and other public sector workers step down during Britain’s ‘summer of discontent’ . The 39-year-old is firmly to the left of Labor and has never been a fan of Starmer’s cautious approach to opposition, despite accepting promotion to the party’s front seat.

The son of a Church of England clergyman, Tarry grew up in Ilford and became a cleaner at Redbridge College aged 15. He went on to work for the anti-racism charity Hope Not Hate, the transport union TSSA and was chairman of the left-wing class think tank. Tarry was a Labor councilor at Barking and Dagenham from 2010 to 2018, before being elected MP for Ilford South in 2019, beating Mike Gapes, who left Labor to join Change UK.

Now Tarry is embroiled in a fierce selection battle to remain Labor’s candidate for Ilford South after local members voted for an open competition. He is likely to face Jas Athwal, the leader of Redbridge Council, who stood to run for the seat in 2019 but was suspended from the Labor Party on the eve of the vote following allegations of sexual harassment. 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 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 left and right in the party; Tarry alleged that “rule violations” and “voter fraud” took place during the process of calling the ballot. He has the backing of some shadow cabinet members, including Ed Miliband and Louise Haigh, and insists he has no intention of running for the Dagenham and Rainham seat of Jon Cruddas (Cruddas leaves Parliament and Tarry ran his deputy leadership campaign in 2007).

“I’ve destroyed a lot of my political credibility over the past three years with the broader movement and the labor movement by being on the sidelines during very difficult times,” Tarry said.

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“And actually in some ways it probably helps if a lot more people don’t throw themselves under the bus when there’s an opportunity for left-leaning MPs. I’ve always been of the view that we should occupy as many positions as possible in the shadow ministerial team. We must not give everything to the right.

In the Sky News interview that triggered his dismissal, Tarry said ‘every worker should get a pay rise in line with inflation’, which the Bank of England predicts will reach 13% of by the end of this year. Labour’s policy is that workers deserve ‘fair’ pay rises agreed through negotiations rather than political intervention.

“I was fired for going on TV and saying I think UK workers deserve to be paid in line with inflation,” Tarry said. “I said that for every organization, every company and in every industry or sector of course, this has to be negotiated around the table.

“But we don’t have a position. So that means our position, basically, if you read between the lines, is that we’re actually committing to having a below inflation pay rise for UK workers, which means the position of the Labor Party, you can deduce from this, is that we are committing to a pay cut in real terms for people.

“It’s totally unacceptable to me. I think it’s totally unacceptable to a number of shadow cabinet members. I believe it’s going to totally fall apart over the next few months. We’re going to see a situation where, say, poorly paid nurses or government workers go on strike, like the cleaners. Are we really going to tell them that they can’t be raised to the current level to survive?”

After a lost decade for living standards, Tarry believes mounting pressure will make Labor’s annual conference in September a dangerous time for Starmer. Left-wing activist group Momentum is preparing motions calling on Labor to back ‘inflation-proof’ pay rises.

“I think it’s going to be very difficult for Keir, and if management doubles down and basically tries to say, ‘Oh, this is about continuing this completely fanciful thing of breaking up the left, attacking the unions,’ it’s not going to make us win the election.

“Quite frankly, it’s irritable, and real adults would bring everyone back to the table, unite the party, bring the unions back on board, build up our war chest and then win the general election.”

Tarry is a formidable Labor internal election campaigner: he led his now-partner Angela Rayner’s successful deputy leadership campaign in 2020 and Jeremy Corbyn’s victorious leadership campaign in 2016.

He acknowledged any pay deal must be ‘sustainable’ and said he believed Starmer could win a general election, but argued the lowest-paid workers should get inflation-level wage increases .

The ban on shadow ministers visiting strikers, he argued, “created a false dividing line” within Labor and its shadow cabinet that also divides the labor movement.

“This is not about being serious about the government, this is a serious error in political judgement,” he said. “We make catastrophic mistakes, creating a punch with our own team. How on earth are we actually going to get into government with this lack of political foresight, this lack of political strategy. I find this deeply, deeply frustrating, because it’s completely avoidable.

New politics are essential, he said: “There is a path to power that is not fundamentally about imitating the Tories. I think it’s almost like we have to go back to basics.

“We need to be very clear with key policies that each person understands are fully encrypted,” Tarry said. “We’re not going to win just by getting closer to the big companies in the Square Mile. We seduce large corporations by talking about our investment strategy.

Tarry also thinks Labor can be more radical on electoral reform. The Liberal Democrats would insist on the introduction of proportional representation without a referendum in return for a deal with Labor in a hung parliament. And Tarry will be among the voices pressuring Starmer to support abolishing the first-past-the-post system.

“The Conservatives aim to stay in power,” he said. “Let us make tough decisions to keep Labor in power.

“Conservatives are basically gerrymandering [constituency] borders. They attack the financing of unions. They attack labor rights. And there are things like mandatory voter ID, those voter suppression tactics, that came straight out of Trump’s rulebook.

“We should say: there is not a majority of people in this country who support this Conservative agenda and there is not a majority of people in this country who 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 much more than they do now.”

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

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