Labour leader reassures union bosses in row over workers' rights plans – but it's not over yet

Sir Keir Starmer has moved to reassure trade union bosses about his party's plans to strengthen workers' rights, after he was accused of watering them down.

The party has promised a radical shake-up for workers if they win office - including banning zero hours contracts, employment rights from day one, and ending the practice of "fire and rehire".

The new deal for working people was billed as the biggest advance in workers' rights for decades when first unveiled by Angela Rayner in 2021.

The party made some changes last summer, but union bosses claimed a new document circulated to them last week was an attempt to row back further on these commitments.

Sharon Graham, the general secretary of the Unite union, called the new document - which has not been made public - a "betrayal" and "unrecognisable" from the original plans.

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With tensions running high, bosses of trade unions affiliated to Labour met with Sir Keir, deputy leader Angela Rayner and shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves and agreed to scrap the new draft.

In a joint statement they said: "Labour and the affiliated unions had a constructive discussion today. Together we have reiterated Labour's full commitment to the new deal for working people as agreed in July.

"We will continue to work together at pace on how a Labour government would implement it in legislation."

Union sources who feared the Labour leadership were bowing to pressure from big business ahead of the election, claimed the party had been talked into a retreat.

After three hours at Labour's south London headquarters - although it is understood Sir Keir was not there for the whole meeting - Ms Graham said Labour's position had changed.

She told Sky News: "It was constructive. I think it was really important to have the workers' voices heard in the meeting itself, because we wanted to reaffirm our position that the New Deal for Working People must be implemented.

"We've got a really good position where that has been recommitted to. We're meeting again in three weeks' time after we put some information together to discuss a new document. It was a crunch meeting. It was a red line meeting. But I think we've got there." She added: "I think it [Labour's position] has changed".

The new deal had originally come with a promise that an "employment rights bill" to legislate for it would be introduced within 100 days of winning power, although this is now seen as unrealistic.

Some changes were agreed last summer at the national policy forum, a gathering of party officials, MPs and union leaders, which the Unite boss claimed was an attempt to "curry favour with big business".

The Financial Times reported last week that a new draft included even more business-friendly language on fire and rehire - essentially sacking workers and hiring them back on less favourable terms.

The paper reported that it contained a line about the importance of allowing businesses to "restructure to remain viable and preserve their workforce when there is genuinely no alternative".

It was also claimed that zero hours contracts would not be completely banned because some people choose to have them - but give workers rights to a contract reflecting their usual work pattern.

Labour has also promised to bring in fair pay agreements for social care workers, which a right-wing research group Policy Exchange claimed could add £225 to the average council tax bill.

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Sir Keir's party has already pruned back their 2021 plans to invest £28bn in green energy, after a protracted battle within the party.

Union leaders will be holding Sir Keir and his shadow chancellors' feet to the fire to ensure another of his party's more radical dividing lines does not go the same way, under the glare of an election campaign.

But despite the smiles today, this is a row delayed, with more wrangling to be done.