Keir Starmer has told the Prime Minister that his “door is open” and urged the government to work with Labour, trade unions and businesses to protect jobs in the coronavirus pandemic.
Addressing the online TUC Congress 2020 this morning, the Labour leader discussed the trade union movement’s response to the virus and thanked attendees for “protecting millions of jobs and keeping people safe at work”.
Starmer accused Boris Johnson of having “failed on all counts” in the response to the pandemic, and slammed the Prime Minister for this week “reopening old wounds on Brexit” as Covid cases rise across the country.
He discussed the winding down of the furlough scheme and said that it makes no sense for the government to pull support away now in “one fell swoop”, and argued for the government to work with Labour to create a replacement.
Commenting on the government’s approach to the health crisis, he said: “Whatever Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock might say: It’s not the British people that are to blame for these mistakes.
“It isn’t civil servants. Care home workers. Or mutant algorithms. It’s this government. It’s the government that’s holding Britain back. And we should never let them forget it.”
The Labour leader warned that the UK is “on the precipice of a return to Thatcher-era unemployment”, and told the TUC Congress that the labour movement cannot let the same “scarring” of communities happen again.
He urged the Prime Minister: “Work with us to keep millions of people in work. Work with the trade unions, and work with businesses. Do everything possible to protect jobs and to deliver for working people. My door is open.”
Starmer also told attendees that after the “sacrifice” of workers in the pandemic: “We can’t go back to business as usual. Or defend the status quo. We can’t go back to a society where over half of care workers earn less than the living wage.”
Labour this morning called on the government to “adopt a more flexible approach” or risk unemployment skyrocketing after new figures showed that almost 700,000 jobs have been lost since the UK went into lockdown in March.
General secretary Frances O’Grady used her speech to Congress on Monday to issue a challenge to Chancellor Rishi Sunak. She told him to “stand by working families” and warned of a “tsunami of job losses” as the furlough scheme ends.
The TUC earlier this week launched its campaign for key workers to receive decent pay, as well as fair terms and conditions in their contracts, to give “dignity at work” to those who risked their lives during the coronavirus crisis.
Below is the full text of Keir Starmer’s speech to the TUC Congress 2020.
Thank you, Ged. To the TUC for inviting me to speak today. And to everyone involved in making it possible to hold congress this week. This time last year, I spoke to you in Brighton in a packed conference hall. This time last week, I thought there would be an audience of thirty. By Wednesday that was down to six. Yesterday – when I was told to self-isolate – it became just me!
I want to start by thanking the TUC and the trade union movement for everything you’ve done during this pandemic. As ever, when it came to protecting millions of jobs, and keeping people safe at work. It was the union movement that stood up. Without you there would have been no furlough scheme. No life-raft for seven million people.
And let’s face it, if it had been down to this government, it would have been sink or swim. The trade unions have always been the unsung heroes of our national story. And through this crisis you have helped to write another proud chapter. Our party was born out of the trade unions. We are one family. One movement. And under my leadership, we will always stay that way.
For me, this is personal. My mum was a nurse. My dad was a toolmaker. I didn’t know what an office looked like until I left for university. For me, work meant a factory floor, or a hospital ward. And care wasn’t an abstract concept, a policy conundrum to be debated. It was the real-life round the clock support my mum received from the NHS when she became too ill to work. Those values have stayed with me.
Opportunity: Fairness. Compassion. And, they will define my leadership. But Congress, the task ahead of us is huge. The general election result in December was devastating. Not just for the Labour Party or the trade union movement. But for the millions of working people who desperately need a Labour government.
I’m incredibly proud of the courage and heroism the British people have shown during this crisis. But time and time again, this government has let working people down. Britain shouldn’t have one of the highest death rates in the world. And one of the deepest recessions.
We shouldn’t leave our workers without protective equipment. We shouldn’t have failed the most vulnerable in our care homes. And people shouldn’t have to traipse half-way round the country in search of a Covid test when they’re sick. Yesterday, my family were able to get a test quickly when we needed one. But only because my wife works for the NHS in a hospital that provides tests for staff and their families. For thousands of people across the country it’s a very different story.
And after six months of this pandemic, that’s completely unacceptable. Whatever Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock might say: It’s not the British people that are to blame for these mistakes. It isn’t civil servants. Care home workers. Or mutant algorithms. It’s this government. It’s the government that’s holding Britain back. And we should never let them forget it.
At the very least the Prime Minister should have spent the summer getting the basics right. A testing system that works. An effective track and trace system – we don’t need world beating, we just need effective. A plan to protect care homes this winter. An exams system that parents and young people can trust.
He’s failed on all counts. And as infection rates rise and our testing system collapses. What’s his priority? Reopening old wounds on Brexit. Trashing Britain’s reputation abroad. And making it harder for us to get the trade deal we all want. My message to the PM is simple: Get your priorities right. Get on with defeating this virus. And get the Brexit deal you promised.
This crisis has exposed the total incompetence of this government. But it also exposed something much deeper. The ingrained injustices and inequalities we see all around us. Austerity was always a political choice. A bulldozer to the foundations of society. And it left us woefully unprepared for this crisis.
Congress, We’re a great country. We’re the sixth richest country in the world. But our economy is one where the workers we applaud are overworked, underpaid and undervalued. Where many – especially the self-employed – lack basic rights and security at work. Where millions of people are one missed pay-packet away from hardship. And where too few are able to save for their future and their retirement.
We’ve got to change this. After all the sacrifice and the loss, We can’t go back to business as usual. Or defend the status quo. We can’t go back to a society where over half of care workers earn less than the living wage. A society, where we pay tribute to the generation that saved us during the second world war. But now we can’t protect them in our care homes.
Or a country where we don’t invest in our public services for a decade, but now expect our frontline workers to protect us. We need to capture the bravery, the sacrifice and ingenuity we’ve seen from the British people. In that, we can see a vision of a better future. And I want to work with you every step of the way to build it.
We can start that work today. By setting out what the government must do now to protect millions of jobs. Because we’re on the precipice of a return to Thatcher-era unemployment. We know only too well the scarring effect mass unemployment will have on communities and families across the country. We can’t let it happen again.
And we can’t let the Tories use this crisis as an excuse to weaken workers’ rights. Hold back planned rises in the living wage. Or embark on a fresh round of austerity. Of course, the furlough scheme can’t go on as it is forever. We’ve never suggested that. But the truth is this: the virus is still with us. Infections are rising. Lockdowns are increasing.
And for some sectors of our economy – retail, aviation, hospitality. For millions of workers. And for towns and cities under restrictions. It just isn’t possible to get back to work or reopen businesses. That isn’t a choice: it’s the cold reality of this crisis. So, it makes no sense at all for the government to pull support away now. And in one fell swoop, but with a bit of imagination, and if we act in the national interest – a better approach is possible.
That’s why today, I’m calling for the government to work with us. To create new, targeted support that can replace the Job Retention Scheme. To develop this through urgent talks with trade unions, businesses and the Labour Party. So that we can deliver direct support and training to those who need it. And prevent mass unemployment. This would be a life-raft while we’re still in choppy waters.
We will approach this constructively and look at the different options that have been put forward. Whether that’s the TUC’s Jobs Protection and Upskilling Plan; the CBI’s short-time work scheme; the German Kurzarbeit scheme. Or similar schemes in France or Denmark. But the principles are clear. Expand part-time working and reward employers who keep people on rather than cutting jobs. Provide training and support for those who can’t come back full-time. Target those sectors most in need – for example retail, hospitality, aviation and those hit by local lockdowns. Provide certainty for workers and businesses.
At this moment of national crisis, we should take inspiration from our past. Be willing to put party differences aside, and work together in the interest of the country. Imagine how powerful it would be. If we could form a genuine national plan to protect jobs, create new ones and invest in skills and training?
So, I’m making an open offer to the Prime Minister: work with us to keep millions of people in work. Work with the trade unions, and work with businesses. Do everything possible to protect jobs and to deliver for working people. My door is open. And Congress, there’s something more the government must do.
Outlaw “fire and re-hire” tactics. We’ve seen this happening already in the private and public sector. Where thousands of workers have been issued redundancy notices and offered new contracts on worse pay and conditions. In disputes such as with BA and British Gas, we’ve seen the importance of strong trade unions in defending working people.
“Fire and re-hire” tactics are wrong. They’re against British values. They should also be illegal. These tactics punish good employers. Hit working people hard. And harm our economy. After a decade of pay restraint – that’s the last thing working people need. And in the middle of a deep recession – it’s the last thing our economy needs.
So, I’m calling on the government to act now. Introduce legislation to end fire and re-hire. And give working people the security they need. If you do that, you will have our full support. Congress, the months ahead are going to be rocky. At the helm, we’ve got the most incompetent government I can remember. And we face the perfect storm of the biggest economic, health and social challenge for a generation.
Labour and the trade union movement need to stand together like never before. To show the British people that we’ve got their back. And their future too. We’ll fight to protect jobs, incomes and working conditions at this time of national crisis. And show that there is a better, fairer society to come. That is our mission. And, I will work with you for the next five years to deliver it. Thank you.