Union boss warns Keir Starmer Labour needs radical plan to transform lives ahead of next election

Sharon Graham UNITE on a picket line in Coventry with striking Ambulance workers
Sharon Graham', Unite trade union's General Secretary. -Credit:Ian Vogler

Britain’s most powerful union boss has warned Keir Starmer he is failing to grasp the mood of the country and needs a radical plan to transform lives.

In her most significant pre-election intervention to date Unite General Secretary Sharon Graham told the Sunday Mail people are “crying out for change”, but that Labour’s over cautious approach “sounds like no plan”.

It comes after Starmer unveiled six “first steps” promising to deliver economic stability, cut NHS waiting times, launch a new Border Security Command, set up Great British Energy, crack down on antisocial behaviour and Recruit 6,500 teachers.

The “door step offer” campaign has been compared to the 1997 election pledge card from Tony Blair before he swept to power with a landslide victory that locked the Tories out of No. 10 for over a decade.

But Graham, who represents over a million workers including around 140,000 in Scotland, has urged Starmer - who is being advised by Blair - to instead look to the transformational post war Labour government of Clement Attlee for inspiration.

She said: “We need a Labour government, there is absolutely no doubt about that, I will be voting Labour, we have had 14 years of the business lobby and we do not need any more of that.

“But Labour’s job is to fight for workers, to create high quality jobs with good pay and conditions, and while they are getting it right on some things they are being far too cautious in other areas.

“They think that caution comes across as prudence and good statesmanship but what it actually sounds like is no plan.

“I think Keir Starmer’s got a massive opportunity and I don’t understand the caution if I’m absolutely honest.

“The country is crying out for change. Everybody that I speak to is saying god, this is hideous -it couldn’t be more hideous for millions of workers out there.

“It’s not 1997, we have a completely different economic backdrop today, people feel differently.

“We’ve just gone through covid and there is a real sense of unfairness, the fact that the people who went out to work, some of who died, were low paid workers, NHS workers, bus workers, supermarket workers - but now when they ask for a pay rise they are told to get back in their box and accused of pushing up inflation.

“While real wages have stagnated, corporations have racked up hundreds of billions in profits. But our research also shows increased profits haven’t translated into investment, while shareholder payouts rise.

“So it’s clear our economy is broken - it wasn’t city bankers that were risking their lives, they were at home, but it is somehow fine to take the cap off bankers’ bonuses.

“How did we get to this place where we are the sixth richest economy in the world but people can’t afford to buy food and are choosing between heating and eating.

“So I’m not so sure that the mood of the country is being grasped, that actually people will want this change.”

Graham, who was in Scotland to launch a major campaign demanding Labour implement a multi-billion pound investment plan to replace North Sea oil jobs, added: “We are told the public finances are too stretched for these big ideas but the UK’s debt to GDP is just over ninety per cent which is not very different from other countries.

“After the Second World War our debt to GDP was 250 per cent and we built the NHS, created the welfare state and built up nationalised industries and we thrived in the following years.

“I believe this is a moment like that when we are going to have to invest in order to get the UK back on track.”

Graham’s intervention will be viewed as one of the most serious challenges to Starmer’s policy platform which has faced accusations of pandering to right wing Tory voters on emigration, while failing to set out a programme for radical economic renewal.

In February Labour cut its green jobs investment plans by half when shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves announced a £28billion commitment would be reduced to under £15billion – only a third of which would be new money.

Meanwhile the party has said it will “not grant licences to explore new fields” in the North Sea in a bid to combat climate change - a move the oil and gas sector fear will cost tens of thousands of Scottish jobs.

Earlier this month there was criticism over the decision to welcome right wing former Tory MP Natalie Elphicke into Labour.

Graham added: “In Scotland 38,000 jobs are going to go in oil and gas and we have been asking what is the plan to replace them because you can’t just pull the plug on people’s livelihoods without a viable plan.

“We are told there is going to be a switch to green jobs, but where are these jobs coming from and what exactly are they going to be.

“If someone is riding an electric bike to deliver takeaway food for example is that being classed as a green job? Because we are talking about losing oil and gas jobs which are well paid and highly skilled.

“So I am saying where is the investment strategy, if we don’t invest we are not going to get the jobs in wind, carbon capture and in hydrogen.

“I think Labour and the SNP should have had a plan and the first question everyone’s going to ask is how much it’s going to cost?

“We are being clear that we think it is going to cost £1.1billion for six years, and that this year should be the first year that money goes in because we are running out of time.”

While polls suggest Starmer will win the keys to Downing Street it is unclear whether he has enough support to form a majority government and a hung parliament remains a possibility.

In Scotland the next Holyrood election is scheduled for 2026 with some polls have suggested Labour and the SNP are neck and neck in the polls.

Graham added: “The six pledges from Labour are quite general and as we get nearer to the election they are going to have to say what these things actually mean.

“So when you’re talking about the NHS, yes of course we want shorter waiting lists, but how are you going to achieve that when the NHS has got a recruitment and retention issue, people are leaving the NHS in droves.

“People want to see the meat on the bones explaining how they are going to turn this around with a new deal for workers.”

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