Below is the full text of Keir Starmer’s speech to the GMB Digital Congress 2021.
Thank you to the GMB for inviting me to speak today, and to Barbara for the introduction. It is a mark of how strange and frustrating the last year has been that this is my first chance to speak to GMB Congress as Labour leader. And that I’m having to do so from behind a Zoom screen. Just me and a laptop. And all the problems that that brings.
The last time I was at your Congress was two years ago on a glorious sunny day in Brighton. I had the chance to meet a GMB delegation including Gary Smith, reps and delegates to discuss the changes that were coming to manufacturing, to workers’ rights, to post-Brexit trade and of course to the Scotch Whisky Industry. Well a lot has happened since then.
But as our brilliant NHS continue to make the impossible possible, through the vaccine rollout, I hope this will be the last time there’s a screen between us. And I look forward to being back together very soon.
I want to congratulate everyone at GMB for putting on this conference in the most difficult of circumstances. And, on behalf of the whole Labour Party, I want to thank you for your incredible support over the last year. I value it immensely.
I want to start by congratulating Gary on his election as general secretary. Last summer, Gary and I had a pint in Edinburgh during one of those rare occasions when it was allowed! We spoke about how we could rebuild working-class support in Scotland. And I asked him to help us on our constitutional commission. It was clear then that Gary had such a passion for the union he now leads, for the labour movement and for this country. Gary, I’m really looking forward to working with you on the next stage on this journey.
I also want to pay tribute to Rehana and Giovanna for the way they fought this election. And to Warren Kenny for stepping up and steadying the ship as acting general secretary. Thank you, Warren, for everything you’ve done. And for providing stability at such an important time.
These last few months have seen major successes for GMB and for our members. I joined GMB when I was a lawyer, many years ago, and I’m still a proud member. So let me reflect on some of these recent successes.
The recognition agreement with Uber is truly ground-breaking – for the union movement and for working people. It means GMB will be able to help 70,000 Uber drivers to organise and to negotiate terms and conditions for the first time. It builds on the huge progress you made earlier this year on pay, pensions and holiday entitlement. And it shows how trade unions can raise standards and protect workers, even in the gig economy. I’m so proud of GMB for fighting this case and for making a real difference. Not just for Uber workers but for all those who will follow.
I want to congratulate Mick Rix and all the GMB reps for your work on this campaign. Not just in the last few months, but over many years. I know it’s been a real David vs Goliath struggle.
It takes me back to the many years I spent as a young lawyer working with Helen Steel and Dave Morris on the McLibel case, taking on the mighty McDonalds, fighting and winning against all the odds in court. But that’s why, and I may be the only former lawyer to say this: I want to lead a government that makes sure working people and trade unions don’t have to go to court, and don’t have to spend huge amounts of time and money just to get a fair deal. The government I lead will be one that changes lives tackles injustice and is always on the side of working people.
I also want to pay tribute to the way GMB have fought tirelessly against Fire and Rehire. When I spoke at TUC Congress last September – which, once again, was from behind a Zoom Screen, only on that occasion I was also self-isolating so I ended up doing a speech from my loft. But as I said then and I say again, we have to outlaw fire and rehire. These tactics are wrong. They punish good employers, they hit working people and they harm our economy.
When I spoke at the TUC conference you had seen this first-hand with workers at Centrica and ASDA starting even before the pandemic. But it’s now much more widespread – at British Airways, Weetabix, Tesco – and across a range of sectors. Including those previously thought to provide more secure employment.
The TUC estimate that one in ten workers have been threatened with fire and rehire during the pandemic. One in ten. That’s a truly shocking way to repay the sacrifices of so many working people. This “levelling down” of our economy and workers’ rights can’t continue.
After everything the British people have been through in the last year. We can’t go back to businesses as usual. Back to where we started. And we can’t continue the slide toward a low-rights and low-pay economy. As we recover from this pandemic, we have to build a more secure economy to rebuild the foundations after a decade of neglect. And to get Britain ready for the challenges and opportunities of the future. That’s the central task of the Labour Party I lead. Not to tinker around the edges.
But to transform the country – and our economy – so it works for working people. So that everyone can earn a wage they can bring a family up on. So that we can support British manufacturing and bring good quality jobs back to Britain. So we can lead the world in energy – with the infrastructure and jobs of the future created here, not just overseas. And – as our new Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves has set out – so we can deliver the biggest wave of insourcing in a generation. And bring public services back in public hands for the benefit of all of us.
But as Gary said in an article at the weekend – these aren’t times of harvest. We face the threat of a new wave of austerity. And a Conservative government that has no interest in delivering real change for working people. They’ve dropped the employment bill they promised two years ago. They won’t outlaw Fire and Rehire – as Labour would. They want to toughen anti-trade union laws rather than to repeal them, as Labour would.
And in the last week we’ve seen what “levelling up” really means for kids’ education: one-tenth of the funding that’s needed, the most disadvantaged children falling further behind. And our teachers – including school support staff – once again being asked to do more, with less. It shows everything you need to know about this government’s priorities.
In the coming weeks and months, I’ll be setting out the next stage of Labour’s plan as we build toward the next general election. I’ll be out across the country, talking directly to the British people. And I can assure you that work – and building a more secure economy – will be central to that.
Labour is, and always will be, the party of work. And the party of working people. I want people to know once again that under a Labour government they’ll earn a decent day’s pay from a job they are proud of. That we’ll end a race to the bottom on rights and standards. And that we’ll rebalance our economy, so it works for all parts of the country. And so it’s focused on the long-term, not short-term shareholder gain.
In the last year, we’ve taken a number of really important steps on that journey – and in particular I want to thank Andy McDonald for the way he’s led the Taskforce on Power in the Workplace. And I’ll be working closely with Andy and Angela Rayner as we continue to drive that agenda forward. But if we’re to achieve everything we want for this country and for this movement, we’re going to need your help.
This party was born out of the trade union movement. And it’s only when we work together – as we have in the last year – that we can stand up for working people. Stand up against this Conservative government. And set out the transformative change Britain so desperately needs.
That’s the task ahead of us – and I’m looking forward to achieving it with you. Thank you.