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13 September 2023

Labour still needs the unions

Angela Rayner’s lead on workers’ rights is keeping organised labour behind the party – for now.

By Freddie Hayward

Angela Rayner delivered a speech on workers’ rights at the Trades Union Congress yesterday – her first public appearance since the reshuffle. While the recent boom in donations from private individuals insulates Labour from relying on labour, the party needs to keep the unions on board.

Alongside the levelling-up brief, Rayner remains the “strategic lead” for Labour’s New Deal for Working People, a considerable package of labour market reforms. As she set out yesterday, it includes: “Day-one basic rights, a ban on zero-hour contracts, an end to fire and rehire, family-friendly working, strengthened sick pay, making it available to all workers, including the lowest earners.”

Rayner’s New Deal is central to retaining the unions’ support for Keir Starmer’s project at a time when trade unions are showing their strength through strikes. Dissent has been largely confined to Unite, whose general-secretary Sharon Graham regularly pillories Starmer.

As Rachel Wearmouth reported from the TUC for the New Statesman: “Many trade unionists bucked when the shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves, refused to commit to new spending commitments or a wealth tax. That Labour in government will significantly strengthen workplace rights is their price for future cooperation.”

Labour’s claim to be radical is increasingly dependent on cost-free measures such as planning reform to boost house-building and changes to the school curriculum. The New Deal is another example of where the party can unpick some of the last 13 years without spending much money. (Though some parts may require spending – for instance, the plan for sectoral pay negotiations in social care could require the central government to give local authorities more money to fund the pay rises. Rayner’s reasonable response is that investment saves money in the long term, not least because a properly funded social-care sector would alleviate the burden on the NHS. But “invest in the short term to save in the long term” sounds counter to Reeves’s fiscal rules.)

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For now, the unions are broadly behind Labour’s re-election push. But, as Rachel concludes in her despatch, there is a risk for Rayner and her party in their sweeping promises: if they don’t deliver, the unions could quickly turn.

A final thought: Rayner referenced “levelling up” three times in her speech. I’ve suggested before that Labour’s version of levelling up is essentially the green prosperity plan combined with streamlined devolution. Could we add employment reforms to that list? And if so, has levelling up for Labour become everything and therefore nothing?

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; subscribe to it on Substack here.

[See also: TUC Chief: Tax wealth to fix broken Britain]

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