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Labour And The Unions: The Awkward Couple?

Liverpool, September 2023: Angela Rayner at the TUC Annual conference | Image by: Karl Black / Alamy Stock Photo

4 min read

Labour boasts strong policies on workers’ rights, but there is nervousness among the unions that the party may not be as good as its word

A few weeks ago, Justin Madders, Labour’s shadow employment rights secretary, appeared at a fringe event at the TUC Congress in Liverpool. He was talking about Labour’s offer on employment rights, alongside trade union leaders Mick Lynch, Sarah Woolley, Daniel Kebede and Paul Fleming. Tellingly, much of the discussion was directed at Madders, and followed a theme: will Labour make good on its workers’ rights pledges? 

Despite some murmurings of unhappiness – in August Angela Rayner denied reports that a pledge to create a single status of worker had been “diluted” – unions were by and large pleased with the set of policies on workers’ rights, termed the New Deal for Working People, that emerged from Labour’s National Policy Forum at the end of July. It was of note, however, that Unite gave the overall policy package, including its workers’ rights provisions, a “thumbs down”. 

The deal includes pledges to give all workers employment rights on day one, ban fire and rehire, and ban zero hours contracts. Both in public and behind closed doors, most union figures agreed with the line that, if implemented, it would represent a huge level up for workers’ rights. The “if implemented” clause in that sentence has been the source of notable anxiety, however. At the TUC fringe, Lynch told the audience, and Madders, that the unions wanted the “full-fat package… undiluted, unfiltered, unstrained – we want the lot”, while in her speech to the hall Rayner notably stressed that Labour’s commitments were “cast-iron”. 

From the junking of many of the 10 pledges that guided Keir Starmer’s leadership campaign (the man himself refutes the idea they have been abandoned, saying that they have evolved to meet the demands of a much-changed world) to a raft of softenings or amendments of party position in the years since, there is a sense amongst many in the party and the unions that the word of the Labour leadership is not quite as, well, cast-iron as one might hope. Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the public service union PCS, said at the recent summit of trade unions in Liverpool that he thought the Labour leader had acted in ways that seemed “untrustworthy”, highlighting the party’s position on the two-child benefit limit. 

Rayner notably stressed that Labour’s commitments were ‘cast-iron’

Few would be so strident, but a general tenor of nervousness nonetheless colours the unions’ view on the party’s commitments. (The exception to this is Unite’s Sharon Graham, who has made clear her desire to turn from national politics to shop floor organising – along with her impatience with the contemporary Labour Party.) This anxiety will not have been helped by the release of the final National Policy Forum document, which includes some new promises (such as support for terminally ill workers and more clarity on a pledge to increase the period for bringing employment tribunals) but also appears to walk back commitments on improving sick pay provisions. This document, which will be voted on at party conference, is unlikely to put to bed a nagging feeling that what Labour is saying and what Labour will end up doing on workers’ rights will not entirely match up.

Angela Rayner, who came into politics as a Unison care worker and told audiences in Liverpool that she was “raised in the trade union movement”, pledged that an incoming Labour government would legislate to improve workers’ rights within their first 100 days. As of the September reshuffle, she is the party’s strategic lead for the New Deal for Working People (her previous “Future of Work” brief was dissolved), and eyes will be on her in the fight for promises to become policies.

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