Gordon Brown suffered a backlash from backbench Labour MPs over his handling of the wildcat strikes over foreign workers yesterday.
Several criticised the tough stance taken by the Prime Minister and the Business Secretary Lord Mandelson, who said the unofficial protests were counterproductive and that a retreat into protectionism would turn the recession into a depression.
Workers at power stations and nuclear plants are demonstrating against the employment of foreign workers on contracts from which they say British workers were unfairly excluded.
Hundreds braved a blizzard to protest outside the Lindsey oil refinery in Lincolnshire, where the dispute began six days ago. That action has set off sympathy strikes across the UK. Yesterday, 600 workers at the country's largest nuclear power station, at Sellafield in Cumbria, staged a 24-hour walkout. They were joined by 1,000 workers at other plants.
Labour MPs will hold talks with unions and plan to table a Commons motion registering their concern that skilled Britons are missing out on jobs.
Mr Brown and Lord Mandelson said they understand the anxieties of the workers but senior Labour MPs said their language has been too harsh. One former Cabinet minister told The Independent: “If we don't stand up for these people, we will drive them into the arms of the BNP.”
Michael Meacher, a former environment minister, said Lord Mandelson's warning about a depression was “misguided”.
Negotiators tried to hold secret meetings with union leaders yesterday but demonstrators surrounded the venue. In the Commons, Labour backbenchers expressed fears that Italian and Portuguese workers at Total's Lindsey refinery in Lincolnshire were being paid less than UK employees. The company denies this.