The bitterness against the Tories meant that Labour leader Keir Starmer was greeted warmly when he spoke at the TUC union federation conference on Thursday morning.
Huge cheers and applause greeted his call for a general election in response to the government’s chaos. Starmer vowed to “tear up” the specific pieces of anti-union laws passed in 2016 and oppose any future attacks on workers’ rights.
His comments come towards the end of a congress filled with a sense of serious resistance not always present at TUC events. Delegates had time and time called for solidarity and an escalation of strikes against the Tories and rotten employers.
Starmer failed to mention any of these disputes by name, or say how his opposition would support workers taking action. Instead, his support for strikes was relegated to the abstract “right” to strike—and even then it wasn’t his preferred action.
When asked by bus driver Taj Salam of the Unite union if he was behind bus workers taking on greedy bosses, Starmer said “There’s much more we can do for services and bus drivers,” such as imposing flat fares across cities.
He was far more effusive in lining up with business. “I’m not just pro-business, I want to partner with businesses to drive Britain forward,” he said.
“The majority of business leaders don’t buy into the Tory trickle-down fantasy. They want fair terms, high skills, and the long-term stability to invest. We can work with that, we will work with that.”
He called for an “industrial strategy council” that would act between “government, business and unions.”
And he said, rather than lining up behind workers on strike, they would be better served if he kept his distance.
“You’re doing your job, and I respect that. My job is different—the single most important thing I can do for working people is win the next election and get a Labour government.”
And Starmer said he “wouldn’t apologise” for approaching questions of industrial relations “as a potential Labour government”.
Commenting after Starmer’s speech, Unite general secretary Sharon Graham said, “Britain is in the middle of a horror story. The UK is being lined up for austerity mark two. We need a change in government.
“Warm words are welcome, but we now need a message from Labour that is clear and action based that shows the country what they can vote for, not just what they should vote against,” she added.
Despite the dire warnings peppered throughout Starmer’s speech, he received a standing ovation from all but a handful of delegates. Union leaders think that as prime minister Starmer would give them an easier life and less pressure on their organisations.
At a time when increasing waves of workers are entering into serious dispute, trade unionists should note carefully what Starmer is saying, and what it means for them.
A Starmer government will listen far more carefully to the bankers and the corporations than it will to workers, especially ones that dare to strike and resist.
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