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Unions rally behind Starmer to bolster Labour’s election chances

Open criticism from the leader of one of Britain’s biggest trade unions during Labour’s annual conference this week may give the impression that party leader Sir Keir Starmer’s rightward march is causing ructions among workers’ representatives.

Sharon Graham, general secretary of Unite the Union, said the UK’s largest opposition party needed to be “bolder” and embrace policies such as the nationalisation of the energy industry.

“They must come out with a bigger offer than they’re coming out with at the moment,” she said.

There has also been irritation among some union leaders about the extent to which senior members of the shadow cabinet are cosying up to business leaders and insisting on fiscal discipline.

But most are quietly supportive of Starmer because they want to ensure Labour’s 16-point opinion poll lead over the ruling Conservative party is translated into victory at the general election expected next year.

Their backing is founded on Labour’s manifesto including a long list of pro-worker policies dubbed the “new deal for workers” that meets many of their demands. As such Starmer can rely on the support of three of the four biggest unions: Unison, the GMB and Usdaw.

Their support was crucial two years ago when the Labour leader took a major political gamble by changing the rules around future party leadership contests to make it harder for a “hard left” MP, such as Starmer’s predecessor Jeremy Corbyn, to stand.

Christina McAnea
Unison leader Christina McAnea: ‘I think Keir’s got a laser focus on trying to win the next election’ © Charlie Bibby/FT

“I don’t think he [Starmer] has been too timid. I think Keir’s got a laser focus on trying to win the next election,” said Christina McAnea, general secretary of Unison, a public sector union with more than 1mn members.

“As a trade union leader I’m never going to be super-happy, we always want more, but my ‘pissed-off-ometer’ is quite low at the moment,” said one person at the conference.

Deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner, a former Unison official, drew up the package at the heart of the “new deal”.

A Labour government would reform statutory sick pay by removing both the “lower earnings limit”, which cuts out those on low wages, and the waiting period, which means workers can only access it from day four of sickness.

Other union-pleasing measures include extending statutory maternity and paternity leave, banning fire and rehire, scrapping “exploitative” zero-hours contracts and introducing a new “right to disconnect”.

The party is examining a rollout of collective bargaining across sectors rather than individual companies to secure minimum pay and conditions, starting with a pilot scheme in the care industry.

It has also committed the party to extending the time for bringing an employment claim against an employer from three to six months. 

An argument over that package overshadowed the party’s national policy forum in July when some unions were riled by the party’s partial dilution of promises to boost the protection of those in the gig economy and to create a single status of “worker” for all but the genuinely self-employed.

But most of the new deal has survived that process, to the satisfaction of more moderate unions. 

Paul Nowak, general secretary of the TUC, speaking to Kate Bell, the TUC’s assistant general secretary © Charlie Bibby/FT

In last week’s Rutherglen by-election in Scotland, Labour campaigners highlighted the new deal as the party’s main retail offer to voters, according to Paul Nowak, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, the movement’s umbrella body.

“Those policies really resonated on doorsteps,” he told the Financial Times. “The SNP tried to attack Labour from the left but Labour campaigners had this set of radical measures that would reset the balance of power in all workplaces.”

Union leaders were also delighted by Starmer’s promise to reverse Tory legislation that makes it harder to take industrial action. 

A Labour government would cancel The Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act passed this year, which allows ministers to enforce minimum levels of service in crucial areas of the public sector.

Starmer has also promised to “tear up” the 2016 Trade Union Act, under which unions are required to secure a 50 per cent turnout in a vote of a company’s workers for a strike vote to be valid.  

Some union leaders, including Mick Lynch from the RMT, have called for Starmer to repeal anti-union laws from the 1980s. But others believe the proposals strike the right balance between radicalism and realism.

RMT leader Mick Lynch, speaking at a fringe event in Liverpool
RMT leader Mick Lynch, speaking at a fringe event in Liverpool © Charlie Bibby/FT

“Our relationship is not about being happy, we have a constructive relationship, at times there are disagreements but that is healthy,” said Gary Smith, general secretary of the GMB. “I think we have a credible government-in-waiting which also has a radical world view.”

Some business groups are uneasy about the reforms, even though their public criticism has been muted.

Matthew Percival, director of people and skills at the CBI, said the private sector supported the idea of “fairness” in workplaces but said labour market flexibility was a key pillar of the UK’s competitiveness.

“Poorly targeted legislation risks damaging a key strength of the UK economy without having the desired effect on living standards,” he said. “Businesses will be concerned that taking a narrow view of good work will make labour shortages worse by making it harder to offer the flexible contracts that many people value.”

How long unions’ support for Labour lasts if the party wins the election remains to be seen. They will “toe the line” to get the party into Downing Street but then “the gloves are going to come off”, a former party adviser said. 

But for now, even Unite’s criticism is not absolute. “Unless I’m imagining it I saw Sharon Graham applauding quite loudly during [shadow chancellor] Rachel Reeves’s speech,” said one Labour official.

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