We know more now about how the trade union leaders would react to a Labour government—and the signs aren’t good.
A leak in the Financial Times newspaper last week said that the decision of Labour’s National Policy Forum (NPF) last month meant the party “has watered down plans to strengthen workers’ rights”, it added this took place “as Sir Keir Starmer tries to woo corporate leaders and discredit Tory claims that his party is ‘anti-business’ ahead of the next general election.”
The specifics, said the pro-corporate paper, were that a “future Labour government would continue to allow companies to dismiss staff during a trial period”. There would also be a weakening of the “pledge to create a single status of ‘worker’ for all but the genuinely self-employed, regardless of sector, wage or contract type”.
It probably doesn’t come as much of a shock that Starmer is anxious to eliminate any policy that could conceivably discomfort the gilded elite in the boardrooms.
In a classic statement of the view that the class war doesn’t exist, shadow education minister Stephen Morgan said the party’s election manifesto would be “pro-worker and pro-business”.
But what about the unions? We already knew that Unison and the GMB were in favour of the forum outcome. They were quite happy with Starmer’s embrace of big business and prepared to pay virtually any price to have a government that would be a bit friendlier towards the union bureaucracies.
He can dump pledges about renationalisation or abolishing university tuition fees or reversing vicious Tory assaults on benefits that its own frontbenchers have previously denounced as “heinous” and “obscene”. That’s all acceptable so long as he makes it possible for general secretaries to know the subs will keep rolling in.
Unite, however, withheld its support at the policy forum. And last week the union’s general secretary Sharon Graham said the leaked text showed her union had been right not to back it.
She said, “The changes materially watered down workers’ rights and so could not be supported by Unite. Today, we now know the actual text of the NPF document. Unite was, and is, absolutely justified in taking this position.”
You wouldn’t think Unite, which bungs Labour vast sums and is supposed to be at the heart of the policy-making process, would need a leak in the Financial Times to catch up with the party’s views.
But although it’s complaining, Unite is not launching a real confrontation with Starmer. It’s advancing a more radical version of the other unions’ plan—lobbying, diplomatic pressure and being a “critical friend” of a Labour government.
It’s the politics of a pressure group and accepts that a different strategy—squeezing the bosses and the rich, questioning capitalist priorities—is impossible. Instead the unions hope to gain the ear of someone near the top, or advance deputy leader Angela Rayner against Starmer.
This self-imposed limit over Labour, the blindness to any socialist alternative, is another side of the inadequate leadership from the unions during the strike wave since the summer of 2022. Limited strike mobilisations, always within the remit of the anti-union laws, are mirrored by the loyalist approach to Starmer.
But the gap between what’s needed and the response from Labour and the unions means more people are now asking questions. The World Transformed a left Labour project that holds an annual festival at the party conference, sent out a very interesting email last week.
It said, “Since the ‘Hot Strike Summer’ gave way to a pretty miserable winter for many active trade unionists, rank and file members have started to question the tactics, strategies and democratic mechanisms of their unions.”
That’s true, and there are also growing doubts about Starmer. The Workers’ Summit on 23 September is a chance for everyone who wants to make struggles more effective and stop the union leaders choking off the resistance.
The grassroots networks can fight now and be crucial if Starmer is in Number 10.
Keir Starmer's Thatcher praising speech
Historian John Newsinger writes