Keir Starmer, during the: Repowering the World Session at the WEF 2023 Keir Starmer, during the: Repowering the World Session at the WEF 2023. Source: World Economic Forum - Flickr / cropped from original / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Starmer’s New Deal for workers is a tactic to win working-class votes, and only rank-and-file action will translate this agenda into a reality once Labour gains office, argues John Westmoreland

Earlier in the week, pro-business Labour frontbenchers sat down with trade union leaders at Labour’s HQ to discuss workers’ rights. It sounds very oppositional when you put it like this, but there was a shared agenda. Labour needs the trade unions onside to maintain Labour’s image as a party of the working class, and the union leaders need to channel the political demands of their members away from protest and picket lines and into parliament.

Tension has been building between Starmer and the union leaders who agreed to support Labour’s New Deal for Working People last July. Since then, Labour spokespeople have been strongly hinting that the New Deal is a set of aims, and are not carved in stone.

Labour’s electoral pitch has been about business-friendly policies that stress economic growth as its main priority. Labour used to rely on donations from the unions but is now winning the backing of sections of the media for a Starmer-led government, and donations from businesses are funding Labour’s campaign. However, Starmer’s gleeful welcoming of right-wing Tory Natalie Elphicke onto the Labour benches was a step too far for many mainstream Labour figures. This is not least because among other toxic views, she has championed the toughening up of anti-trade union laws. Matt Wrack, president of the TUC and general secretary of the FBU rightly condemned Elphicke’s ‘disgraceful’ views on the unions as being ‘incompatible with the Labour whip’.

Red line issue

Labour’s New Deal is a recognition of the devastating impact neoliberal policies have had. But the stress is on winning improvements on the back of improved management of the economy rather than empowering trade unions. For the past year, ministers have started to dilute the commitment of an incoming Labour government to the rights set out in New Deal that include: Decent work, Fair work, Safe work and Secure work. The abolition of fire-and-rehire practices and zero-hours contracts were originally promised within 100 days of Labour coming into office, but in recent months, ministers have been walking this commitment back.

Starmer wants to maintain the promise of reform without being held to it. When the Financial Times revealed on May Day that Starmer was discussing the New Deal with corporate leaders, it sparked fury.

Every union leader, no matter their anti-political rhetoric, needs a Labour government that recognises the unions. Unite leader, Sharon Graham, responded to Starmer immediately and forcefully:

‘Choosing May Day to give notice of watering down your promise to overhaul one of the worst sets of employment rights in Europe is beyond irony. If Labour do not explicitly recommit to what they have already pledged, namely that the New Deal for Workers will be delivered in full within the first 100 days of office, then a red line will be crossed.’

The concerns of other Labour-affiliated unions added to the demands for an immediate meeting to sort out the issues, but the outcome of the showdown raises a number of questions.

Electoral pact

In a joint statement after the talks, Labour and the unions 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.’

The words ‘at pace’ mean when a Labour government can bring the legislation in front of the Commons, or watering down by the parliamentary timetable.  And, despite the positivity of trade union leaders about Starmer’s commitment to the New Deal, they have won nothing.

The Labour team was loaded in favour of corporate power: Starmer and his deputy, Angela Rayner, along with the shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves, party chair, Anneliese Dodds, shadow business secretary Jonathan Reynolds, and the shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, Darren Jones. They held the trump cards. The union leaders are desperate to get rid of the Tories. The union leaders want a place at the table after the election. The purpose of the meeting was to establish an electoral pact that would maintain unity and carry working-class votes for Labour.

Starmer’s commitment to the New Deal is a tactic to help him gain office. And, it seems to have worked. Matt Wrack told journalists that ‘it was a very positive meeting’, but when asked if there will be a clear ban on zero-hours contracts replied, ‘there is a lot of work to be done on how the policy will be implemented.’

Dave Ward of the CWU tweeted: ‘We’ve got the position we all want, Labour, working people, this will be the biggest difference in rights the country has ever seen in decades, it will be a flagship policy for the general election.’ And without irony added: ‘We need to shift the balance of forces in the world of work, back towards working people, that’s the only way you’re going to grow the economy.’ Starmer couldn’t have put it better. Socialism through capitalist growth!

We won’t hold our breath

The New Deal was never about giving workers any rights that would enable them to act in their own interests. The anti-trade union laws have been a vital part of the neoliberal project to transfer wealth from the bottom to the top. The bosses are not going to allow Starmer, even if it was his intention, to shift, as Dave Ward puts it, the balance of forces towards working people.

Nevertheless, there is a positive side to this. Workers’ and trade union rights are going to be on the agenda between now and the election. Our trade union leaders have opened up a space for the left to talk about how we turn the promises made into reality. We can’t leave our future well-being to sweetheart deals between Labour and the unions, and we have to start organising at a rank-and-file level now.

There are 4.3m children in poverty in the UK. A new deal for them means confronting corporate and financial interests, confronting Labour’s business bootlickers, and pushing past the constraints of the trade-union bureaucrats.

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John Westmoreland

John is a history teacher and UCU rep. He is an active member of the People's Assembly and writes regularly for Counterfire.

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