Labour Starmer’s “get your priorities right and defeat virus” call to Johnson
Leader hails unions as “unsung heroes of our national story”
Reading time: 9 min
Starmer accused the Prime Minister of failing to get the basics of testing or a plan for care homes right over the summer – and of attempting to “re-open old wounds over Brexit.”
Addressing the PM directly, he said, “Get your priorities right. Get on with defeating this virus.”
In his address to Congress he thanked “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.”
Paying tribute to unions he said that without the movement, “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.”
He said that trade unions have always been the unsung heroes of our national story. Referring to the pandemic he said that “through this crisis you have helped to write another proud chapter.”
And most importantly, “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.”
But he said the task ahead of us is huge. The devastating general election in December especially for the millions of working people who desperately need a Labour government.
Working people let down
“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.”
He said that Boris Johnson had failed on all counts.
“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.”
His message to the PM was simple, “Get your priorities right. Get on with defeating this virus. And get the Brexit deal you promised.”
Starmer believes 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.”
He spoke out against the devastating effects of austerity which left us, the sixth richest country in the world, “woefully unprepared for this crisis.”
Tough on workers
It was tough on our workers. “Our economy is one where the workers we applaud are overworked, underpaid and undervalued. Where many 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.”
Labour was determined 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 country where we don’t invest in our public services for a decade, but now expect our front line workers to protect us.”
It was time now to change this. There was a better way and he wanted Labour and trade unions to work together to achieve this.
“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,” he warned.
Starmer continued, “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.”
He said that Labour understood the furlough scheme couldn’t go on as it is forever – and the virus was still with us and worsening.
Millions of workers and particular sectors of our economy – like retail, aviation, hospitality, were facing great difficulties. And, “It just isn’t possible to get back to work or reopen businesses. It makes no sense at all for the government to pull support away now.”
A better way is possible
He said that with a little imagination a better way is possible.
“That’s why today,” Starmer declared, “I’m calling for the government to work with us. To create new, targeted support that can replace the Job Retention Scheme, and 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.”
Labour would look at the different options that have been put forward – including Unite’s idea of short time working as in the German Kurzarbeit scheme.
It would, “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. And target those sectors most in need – for example retail, hospitality, aviation and those hit by local lockdowns, providing certainty for workers and businesses.
Unity of purpose was key. “At this moment of national crisis, we should 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.”
‘Outlaw fire and re-hire tactics’
But there was something crucial the government had to do, something Unite has also demanded – “Outlaw “fire and re-hire” tactics. We’ve seen this happening already where thousands of workers have been issued redundancy notices and offered new contracts on worse pay and conditions.”
He especially referred to Unite’s campaign against these practices in BA and said that it proved “the importance of strong trade unions in defending working people.”
He continued, “Fire and re-hire” tactics are wrong and should also be illegal. These tactics punish good employers, hit working people hard and harm our economy.”
He called on the government to act now. “Introduce legislation to end fire and re-hire,” he demanded and “give working people the security they need.”
The next few months were going to be “rocky” under the “most incompetent government I can remember. And we face the perfect storm of the biggest economic, health and social challenge for a generation.”
Unity was the watchword of the day. “Labour and the trade union movement need to stand together like never before.
“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,” he concluded.
‘On the side of working people’
Unite general secretary Len McCluskey welcomed Starmer’s words. He said, “This was a good speech which showed Keir to be absolutely on the side of working people.
“An unemployment tsunami is looming and I very much welcome the Labour Party’s campaign to save working people from the scourge of mass unemployment by fighting for a new job protection scheme with targeted, sector support for those industries that need it most.
“Failure to do so is to let the historic investment to save jobs made by UK taxpayers go to waste, and worse, will let working communities slide into decline. With political will, that can be averted.
“I also welcome Keir’s condemnation of the increasing use of fire and rehire tactics to hammer wages and conditions, and his call today for this to be outlawed by the government. It is a despicable and immoral practice that is spreading through the public and private sector and must be made illegal.
“I call on employer organisations and MPs from all parties to work together to put pressure on the government to defend our workforce in a way that Germany, France, Spain and other European countries are doing. UK workers must not, once again be treated as second class citizens and they must not be forced to pay for this crisis,” added McCluskey.
Compiled by Amanda Campbell @amanda_unite