Keir Starmer at TUC Congress 2021: “Labour is the party of working people”

Keir Starmer

Below is the full text of Keir Starmer’s speech to the Trades Union Congress 2021.

Thank you Gail and thank you Frances for inviting me to speak today and for your continued leadership and support. When I spoke to you last year, it was from my attic. This year at least I’ve made it to the podium. With any luck, next year I’ll finally be able to address you all in person. And I’m much looking forward to it.

I want to start by congratulating our new generation of union leaders elected in the past year or so: Paul Fleming (Equity); Christina McAnea (Unison); Gary Smith (GMB), and most recently Sharon Graham (Unite).

And with no disrespect to Gary or Paul, can I say how welcome it is to have two female General Secretaries leading major unions? Women are the majority in many vital sectors. So it’s hugely encouraging to see women leading from the front.

In those vital sectors, it was our key workers, your members, who got us through the pandemic with dedication, strength, and hard work. So, let me take this opportunity to say ‘thank you’ to each and every one of them. They were not alone. Our trade unions were with them every step of the way.

I particularly want to pay tribute to USDAW’s ‘Freedom from Fear’ campaign against violence and abuse towards shopworkers. Having spoken to many shopworkers over the last 18 months, I am in no doubt how important that campaign is to them.

Then there is the collective agreement negotiated by the FBU for firefighters enabling them to deliver essential items like food and medicine to vulnerable people, drive ambulances, and assist ambulance staff. Clear evidence that collective bargaining is a fundamental principle of strong, positive industrial relations.

The GMB’s incredible campaign in support of their engineers working for British Gas. Many risked their own health during the pandemic to enter the homes of elderly and vulnerable residents to ensure they had heat during the winter, only for British Gas to subject them to the despicable practice of fire and rehire.

Health and safety reps across the union movement have been indispensable. They’ve ensured safety at work at a time when guidance from the government has been confused and contradictory.

There are so many other examples. What they all show is that in a time of national crisis the labour movement is more important than ever. But just saying ‘thank you’ isn’t enough. The labour movement needs to have a say when decisions are made, whether in the workplace or across the country.

And it’s no wonder that more workers are joining trade unions. They know that unions will have their back. But what has the government done for our key workers? One in ten at risk of fire and rehire, a cut of £1,000 a year in the incomes of working families on Universal Credit.

A broken promise on National Insurance, raising taxes on working people; inadequate sick pay putting workers in the impossible position of choosing between going to work and feeding their family or isolating at home and protecting our public health; and an unjust pay cut for our key workers in the public sector.

Carers, teaching staff, police officers – this is the thanks you get from the Tories. The government wasted billions of pounds of taxpayer cash on dodgy contracts, vanity projects, and giveaways to their mates. They cut stamp duty for second home-owners and super tax deductions for the biggest companies. They’re putting up taxes for Amazon workers but allowing Amazon to squirrel profits away in tax havens.

All while we see: record numbers of children in poverty; 3.6 million workers in insecure work; wages down £1,000 in real terms over the past decade. After everything we have been through and everything workers have done for this country over the last 18 months, this cannot go on.

Let me set out what I would do. I would deliver a new deal for working people based on: security at work; quality jobs; fairer economy; opportunity for all; and work that pays. Taken together it would transform working life in Britain and make it the best place to work.

And can I take this opportunity to thank our affiliated unions for working with Andy MacDonald and Angela Rayner over the last nine months to develop this vision for a better future.

When I think about a new deal for workers, I think of my Dad. He worked on the factory floor all his life. Going to work at 8 in the morning, home for tea at 5, back to work 6 till 10 o’clock at night, 5 days a week – week in, week out. He did that to provide for our family.

So the starting point is a job to raise a family on. That means a real living wage. Labour would immediately increase the minimum wage to at least £10 an hour. For a carer on the minimum wage, that’s an immediate pay rise of £2,500 a year.

We would also ensure a greater role for unions in boosting pay with more workers covered by collectively agreed deals.

Next, we would tackle insecurity and uncertainty at work. A job you can raise a family on must offer a solid foundation on which you can build your life, not worrying about how many hours you’ll be given the next week or how you’ll pay the bills if you fall ill.

Labour’s New Deal will provide that security, by ensuring basic rights for all workers from day one in the job: including holiday pay; protection from unfair dismissal; and guaranteed sick pay.

We have one of the lowest rates of sick pay in Europe. It’s not good enough. So as well as guaranteeing sick pay, Labour’s new deal will increase it as well.

Better pay and conditions must come with job security. That’s why we will ban zero hours contracts and replace them with regular contracts which actually reflect the hours normally worked.

Raising a family is also about being there. That ought to mean parental leave for all workers and the right to flexible working. These rights should be there from day one in employment and that’s what our New Deal would provide.

Dignity at work, the theme of this congress, runs through our new deal. This is personal to me. Despite being a skilled toolmaker throughout his working life, my dad thought people looked down on him because he worked on the factory floor. He was right about that.

I’ve spent my summer visiting workplaces up and down the country meeting apprentices who are proud of the skills they’ve developed and the work they do. We should share that pride.

The next Labour government will strive for better prospects and dignity for all workers, not just those with a degree. That starts by creating quality jobs across our country.

That’s at the heart of our plan to buy, make and sell more here in Britain. Bringing supply chains back to the UK. Trade deals which deliver for British businesses and workers. And more public contracts should go to British companies big and small.

Just look at the wind industry. From the BiFab manufacturing yards of Fife, you can see the wind turbines. But rather than being made in Scotland they’re shipped in from places like Indonesia 7,000 miles away. A towering symbol of the Government’s failure to plan for the future, back British manufacturers, and deliver jobs.

Labour would take a different approach. Alongside our new deal for working people and our plan to buy, make and sell more in Britain, we would have a green new deal for our economy.

That starts with £30bn of new investment to create 400,000 jobs in manufacturing and low carbon industries. We can tackle the climate crisis and deliver more well-paid, skilled jobs at the same time. But you can’t do that by taking the Tories’ approach burying your head in the sand and leaving it to the market.

We saw where that leads in the 1980s: mass job losses; communities destroyed; jobs exported. That’s why, as a young lawyer, I worked with the NUM in court to prevent the Tories’ pit closures.

It was utterly shameful of Boris Johnson to make jokes about shutting down coal mines. Doesn’t it just show how out of touch he is as Prime Minister? And why he can’t be trusted to manage economic change.

His party is raising taxes on working families. Labour is the party of working people.

When it comes to dignity at work, there is no greater threat than fire and rehire. A cheap trick to get around the law and cheat workers out of the pay and conditions they have earned.

It’s no surprise to see a boom in this practice after a decade of Conservative Governments: undermining workers’ rights; cutting enforcement; and allowing insecure work to spiral.

Labour is standing shoulder to shoulder with the unions on this. Campaigning against this unfair practice. We’ve arranged debates in parliament. We’ve put down amendments. And Labour MPs have fought to introduce the legislation to ban fire and rehire.

But I’ll be blunt with you, Congress. We haven’t been successful yet. And that’s because we’re in Opposition. The uncomfortable truth is that until we have a Labour government our demands for change will be frustrated.

Yes, as trade unions you will continue to win important victories in the workplace. And a good thing too. But we won’t outlaw fire and rehire, we won’t end insecurity in the workplace, and we won’t have a green new deal until we have a Labour government.

Look at the principle written into our constitution: “By the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone.” You know it to be true when it comes to the workplace.

It’s why Unite was able to stop the fire and rehire of British Airways workers. It’s why the GMB won its historic deal for Uber drivers.

The principle is just as true in politics. It’s why our party was created by the trade unions. It’s why the Labour Party will always stand with the trade unions. And why we will always need the trade unions to stand with us.

We have an obligation to unite and to work together. If we do, we can take on this right-wing government, win the next general election, and deliver the transformational change working people so desperately need.

Let’s do it, Congress. Thank you.

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