Unions stop Keir Starmer watering down workers’ rights package

Sir Keir Starmer has been forced to back down on proposals to water down a workers’ rights package that a new Labour government would bring in, The Independent understands.

In what was seen as the first big test for the Labour leader ahead of the general election which he hopes will install him in 10 Downing Street, Sir Keir held a lengthy meeting with a Trade Union Congress delegation.

It followed reports that the Leader of the Opposition was planning to water down a package on workers’ rights which had been agreed in consultation with the unions last year.

After the meeting, TUC president Matt Wrack, the general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), said: “I think it was a very good spirit. The unions are absolutely in one place which I think was noticeable.

“The discussion with Labour now is how is that implemented. There is a lot of work to be done. We know there is a lot of lobbying of Labour by big business and the billionaire class.”

Earlier, Mr Wrack told The Independent that his delegation would “compare and contrast” the measures in Labour’s policy document and what they had agreed in the consultation last year.

Starmer met union leaders on Tuesday (Reuters)
Starmer met union leaders on Tuesday (Reuters)

Mr Wrack issued a warning that union members’ votes “cannot be taken for granted” and that keeping promises on bringing in measures to protect employees was “an important matter of trust”.

He also advised the Labour leadership that boosting workers’ rights “will be an election winner” and “extremely popular”.

The Independent understands that the FBU was a leading force in promoting the existing package of employment rights as set out in the new deal for working people.

Key measures wanted by the unions include repealing Tory legislation which forced a 50 per cent turnout before strikes can happen as well as the minimum service law which restricts industrial action in the NHS and elsewhere.

Unions also want digital voting to be allowed for industrial action as well as employers to lose the ability to fire and rehire employees on worse terms as happened in 2022 for workers at ferry company P&O.

The first sign that the two sides were not fully in agreement was when the meeting at Labour headquarters overran by more than an hour.

Matt Wrack, the TUC president (Clive Gee/PA)
Matt Wrack, the TUC president (Clive Gee/PA)

Shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves left the meeting at around 2pm and then Sir Keir exited before the end, leaving shadow business secretary Jonathan Reynolds and Labour chair Anneliese Dodds to finish off the meeting.

A trade union source said: “The unions were very united at today’s talks and are happy with the outcome of the meeting. They will work with the Labour Party to deliver the New Deal for Working People.”

A joint statement between Labour and the union delegation made it clear that the two sides have not completed the policy paper yet.

It 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.”

However, Labour grandee Lord Mandelson warned that Labour and the unions should not make it too difficult for employers.

Appearing on the How to Win an Election podcast, he said: “We’re now in the 21st century, OK, you know, there’s not one single definition or category of a worker. There are different sorts of status of workers, and they need legislation that accommodates that sort of flexibility. Just be careful you don’t make it so difficult for employers to take the risk of bringing on more workers that they don’t actually then end up creating the jobs.

“Therefore, in this, detail matters. But what I’d say to the trade unions is, don’t be afraid to say yes. You know, you’re being offered a good deal. Yes, it’s got to get the detail right, but don’t, and it’s only a minority of the union leaders who are doing this, don’t kick off against Keir Starmer simply because he wants to get the detail right.”