Labour should support strikes by nurses if they decide to take industrial action over the government’s plan for a real-terms pay cut, senior figures in the party have said.
Andy Burnham, the mayor of greater Manchester, said the government’s approach to the pay dispute was “straightforwardly wrong” and Labour that “have to back” strikes.
Rebecca Long-Bailey, Keir Starmer’s closest rival in last year’s leadership contest, also called for her party to support nursing unions if they decided to take action.
It comes as Labour launches its local election campaign on Thursday arguing that the government should give nurses pay rise. The government has said it will only raise pay by 1 per cent – a real-terms cut – and around half what it had originally budgeted for.
But polls shows public support for significantly higher rises. A YouGov survey commissioned by Nurses United UK found that 75 per cent of the public would support a 10 per cent pay rise for buses, with just 8 per cent opposed. Labour voters were even more supportive, with 86 per cent in favour and just 3 per cent opposed.
Nursing unions and the Royal College of Nurses say the rise should be closer to 12.5 per cent, and argue that they and other hospital staff, some of whom are covered by the same pay scales, have made an invaluable contribution during the pandemic.
But Labour leader Keir Starmer risked angering some his party by declining to back the union pay rise figure and also declining to throw his weight behind strikes.
“The rise for the NHS front line should be above inflation, a real rise. I think the starting point should be the 2.1 per cent that was promised and was, of course, budgeted for,” he said when asked about the nurses’ demands.
His deputy Angela Rayner told the BBC the rise should be “at least give 2.1 per cent”, the figure the government had originally budget for.
Asked why her party was stepping away from a higher pay rise pledged in its December 2019 manifesto, she said: “We’re talking about our election launch for May now and we’ve got to remind ourselves that in that manifesto in 2019, the general public completely rejected it – it was one of our worst election defeats. So what me and Keir have done when we look over the leadership of the Labour Party is listen to voters.
“If you listen to voters now 12 months on from the start of this pandemic they would say that the government should at least honour its promise to our NHS workers who’ve worked so hard and that’s what I’m campaigning on, that’s what Keir’s campaigning on – that our NHS staff deserve a pay rise.”
The position is subject to high-profile dissent in the party, however. Asked whether he would support nurses’ strike, greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham told the Oh God, What Now? Podcast: “On this, yes. I think it’s that fundamental. I think that if you feel strongly you’ve got to follow it through.
“NHS staff should not be being treated in this way, at this moment in time. It’s wrong, it is straightforwardly wrong – it’s wrong for the staff in human terms, it’s wrong for us all in terms of what it might mean for the NHS.
“I do think you have to back them. Of course, nobody wants to see it come to that, of course you would want to negotiate a solution here. That’s why I was calling on the government to do the U-turn, but you cannot take away the right of staff to express how they feel because they can’t be taken for granted.”
He added: “This does seem to me to be an area that the government as got completely wrong and it’s difficult for Labour in the middle of this national crisis: I think they have been on the horns of a dilemma, trying to show support and not point score or make some petty politicking sort of interventions, but at the same time when the government is out of line, call them out.
“They are out of line on this: call them out, is what I would say to my colleagues in the parliamentary Labour Party.”
On Wednesday night Ms Long-Bailey was asked whether she would support strikes on ITV’s Peston programme. She said: “Of course I would. I think what’s happened is absolutely disgusting.
“These are the nurses and also care workers who kept our NHS going, put their own lives at risk, some of them having to wear bin liners because they didn’t have sufficient PPE.
“And this is how they’re thanked. Now I’ve met nurses in the North West, they’re exhausted, some have felt suicidal and many are on the verge of leaving the profession entirely.
“The one percent wasn’t enough and it actually amounts to a pay cut after inflation.
“So I’d say to the government – tell the world what kind of country we are, let them know we value kindness, compassion and hard work – that’s what the people of the country believe in, so give these staff the pay rise they deserve.”
A Tory health minister earlier this week poured petrol on the pay dispute after he said nurses were “well-paid for the job”.
Lord Bethell said nursing attracted a “long queue of people” who wished to work in the sector.
“There are lots of people who have had an extremely tough time and who face a period of unemployment,” he said, justifying the government’s offer.