Marilyn Tyzack for Creating Socialism

It was reported last week that Labour has been forced to change its mind over the watering down of its commitment on workers’ rights reforms. This followed a hastily called meeting by unions with Starmer and his team after they had been presented with a new draft of the proposals on 1st May.  

In the words of Sharon Graham, General Secretary of Unite, these new proposals were “a row-back on a row-back. They are totally unrecognisable from the original proposals produced with the unions.” She claimed it had become a “charter for bad bosses.”

Although lacking detail Sharon Graham was clear that the new proposals suggested that “Labour don’t want a law against fire and rehire and they are effectively ripping up the promise of legislation on a new deal for workers in its first 100 days. Instead, we have codes of conduct and pledges of consultation with big business. Likewise, the proposal to legislate against zero hours contracts is watered down to almost nothing.”

But, following the meeting, a joint statement was issued saying that “together we have reiterated Labour’s full commitment to the new deal for working people, as agreed in July last year.”

There is no doubt that the original package of measures, unveiled by Angela Rayner in 2021 and translated into a Green Paper in 2022 were impressive. In these proposals zero hours contracts would be banned, ending the option for unscrupulous employers like P&O to fire and rehire.  The qualifying periods for basic rights, which currently see working people waiting two years for basic protections would be removed.

In addition, they committed to end in work poverty, establish a Fair Pay Agreement in adult social care to raise terms and conditions across the sector. There would be a right to switch off from work, mental health would be on a par with physical health and flexible working and stronger family friendly rights would be available from day one of the employment. They also committed to closing the gender pay gap and extending statutory maternity leave. All this would be achieved in the first 100 days of office.

The original package was first weakened after a meeting of the National Policy Forum in July, 2023 to allow for more consultation with businesses. This was a significant roll-back as, on past experiences, businesses will resist any reforms that they see as altering the employee relations power balance.  It will inevitably end up with watered down proposals and delay the introduction of the required legislation.

The same Policy Forum showed that Labour was no longer committed to raising sick pay rates or extending it to the self-employed. Zero hours contracts would be allowed, if workers agreed. Past experiences have shown how this level of flexibility opens the door for intimidation and control.

So, the writing was on the wall last year that the pledges were going the way of other so called cast iron guarantees made by Starmer.

 The Financial Times reported last week that the controversial new draft included even more business-friendly language on fire and rehire in that it included a line about the importance of allowing businesses to “restructure to remain viable and preserve their workforce when there is genuinely no alternative”.

Starmer is clearly trying to straddle both sides of the fence on this. He is edgy over Jeremy Hunt using the scaremongering tactics trotted out whenever reforms are proposed that the new deal for workers comprises “70 new burdens on employers, destroying jobs and prosperity in the process.”

Peter Mandelson has added his voice to business concerns. Writing in the Sunday Times, in an article ‘Labour’s reforms must not be rushed’ the former New Labour advisor argued that there  is a need to reassure investors about “red tape”.

However, following the meeting Unite General Secretary, Sharon Graham, said, the unions had been listened to and the workers’ voices heard in what she described as a “red line” summit.

Dave Ward, General Secretary of the Communication Workers Union, reiterated that the meeting was a “positive” and “good” one “We have reached an agreement… in terms of the full new deal, will be implemented as we agreed previously. Keir’s made it very clear how transformational that will be.”

What is surprising is how easily experienced trade union leaders have been persuaded that Keir Starmer will honour these pledges when all the evidence shows that he is not afraid of a U-turn. After running for the Labour leadership on a platform promising nationalised public services, restricted foreign arms sales, and tax hikes for the richest, Starmer’s policies now look very different. He has reneged on the commitment to a £28 billion ‘green prosperity plan’ promised in a speech to the Labour Party Conference in 2022 to rapturous applause and his high profile promise to block oil and gas explorations in the North Sea will not include any licenses agreed before they come into office.

This is reminiscent of the way unions were silenced after the election of the Blair government in 1997 having been warned not ‘to rock the boat.’  So having campaigned vigorously against the Tory privatisation agenda and attacks on the NHS they watched in silent horror as Labour embarked on a similar privatisation and PFI jamboree.

Sharon Graham of Unite has shown a hint of realism when she says, “the words on the page matter though it is still a process.”

Starmer is already reneging on the deal by not including workers rights in his new set of baby steps, sorry, first steps, announced last week. We can only hope that the new deal for workers will continue to be the unions’ red line.


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