As the Royal Mail and London Underground were hit by 24-hour strikes yesterday, senior Labour figures said the party was keen to introduce a "no-strike" system to resolve industrial disputes.
An influential source predicted that two or three years into a Labour government a potential "flashpoint" could be public-sector pay, given the party's insistence on financial discipline and the wage bill freeze imposed by the present Government. The source said the system could include a definitive timetable for disputes to be resolved quickly.
Among the groups of workers that could be included are firefighters, teachers, nurses and local government workers. Most trade unionists are opposed to compulsory binding arbitration because in effect it outlaws strikes, removing what many trade unionists regard as a fundamental civil right. Brushing aside prime ministerial taunts, Tony Blair, the Labour leader, declined in the Commons to condemn the postal and Tube strikes.
His office, however, later echoed a call by David Blunkett, Labour's spokesman for education and employment, for an end to industrial action on the Tube, pending arbitration that would be binding.
John Prescott, deputy Labour leader, is said to have been "scraped off the wall" when he heard about his colleague's assertions.
Lew Adams, general secretary of the train drivers' union, issued a statement, addressed to politicians of all parties but clearly aimed at the Labour leadership: "Please keep out. Keep your wisdom to yourselves. Our dispute is with London Underground. Don't muddy the waters."
Bob Crowe, assistant general secretary of the RMT transport union, said: "It is not a political dispute. Any interference by the Government for political reasons will be counterproductive and unhelpful, and that goes for intervention by an opposition party. Arbitration is not a real substitute for negotiations."
Alan Johnson, leader of the Communication Workers' Union, doubted whether arbitration would help in the postal dispute. He said there would be "howls of anguish" from employers if arbitration became compulsory. Mr Johnson, however, said his union was happy to respond to an invitation to take the dispute to the conciliation service, Acas, today.
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