The leader of Britain’s biggest private sector union has urged Sir Keir Starmer to confirm that a future Labour government would not embark on “another round of austerity”.
Unite general secretary Sharon Graham said she wants guarantees from Labour that the party is not preparing to make “continued cuts to services and pay”.
It comes after Labour leader Sir Keir gave a speech in east London on Thursday in which he pledged that no “big government chequebook” would be required to fund his plans as prime minister.
With Labour 20 points ahead of Rishi Sunak’s Conservatives according to some polling, the party has been keen to stress that the public finances would be safe in its hands.
Sir Keir and other senior figures have regularly said that borrowing would only be used to fund long-term investment and not day-to-day spending.
But Ms Graham said she is concerned that Labour’s pronouncements on spending could be a “buzzword” for austerity and cuts to public services.
Unite has previously been Labour’s biggest financial backer, although relations have cooled slightly since left-wing stalwart Jeremy Corbyn quit as leader following the party’s disastrous 2019 election performance.
Ms Graham said: “Right now our NHS is being deliberately run down and workers and communities are being lined up for another round of austerity.
“So I want to hear Labour make it abundantly clear that the choices it will make will not lead to austerity – that we will not be getting some new buzzword that amounts to continued cuts to services and pay.
“They cannot afford to tinker around the edges. We are a wealthy country and the money is there.
“We now need a government that is committed to making different choices.”
The Tories instigated a period of austerity from 2010 in the wake of the financial crash.
And with high inflation and the economy dealt a heavy blow after the botched autumn “growth plan” of Liz Truss’s government, there are fears of a fresh round of public expenditure cutbacks.
Intentions to borrow heavily while making tax cuts were what sent the economy into freefall after former chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng’s fiscal statement in September.
The quickly-curtailed plan ended up costing Ms Truss her short-lived premiership, seeing her replaced by rival Mr Sunak.
Sir Keir said that if Labour takes over after the next election, which is due to take place before January 2025, it would “inherit a badly damaged economy”.
Taking a question about his spending plans after his speech, he said: “We have to be absolutely clear that we can’t just spend our way out of that mess.”
He added: “Everything we say we will do will be fully costed and set out, as it already has been, and we’ll do that going into the election.”
Shadow communities secretary Lisa Nandy said Labour has an “absolute cast-iron rule” for government which means “we will borrow only for investment”.
She told BBC Radio 4’s World At One programme: “It is people’s money – they haven’t got a lot of it – and I think most people in this country are incredibly realistic about the mess the economy is in after 13 years of Tory Government.
“When we make promises, you can be absolutely sure that we’re going to keep them.”
Asked what that means for future NHS spending, Ms Nandy replied: “It means we’ve got to spend money smarter.”
Responding to Sir Keir’s speech, Gavin Edwards, the Unison union’s head of social care, said: “Keir Starmer recognises that decisive action is needed to solve the staffing crisis, not the current Government’s sticking-plaster approach.”