'Together we can do this'

Labour leader Keir Starmer takes questions after speech at Unite policy conference

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Following Labour leader Keir Starmer’s address to Unite’s policy conference on Thursday (July 13), Unite delegates asked Starmer pointed questions about what a future Labour government would do in power.

Unite delegate Steve Surtees (pictured above), a steelworker at Port Talbot, challenged Starmer to outline in detail what he would do as a future prime minister to save the UK steel industry, which is now on the verge of collapse.

Steve warned the Labour leader that he didn’t want any “wishy-washy politician” answers, to which Starmer responded, “I’m not going to give a wishy-washy answer”.

Starmer highlighted trips he had personally taken to Scunthorpe, where he spoke to steelworkers directly, including Unite reps and members. He also highlighted conversations he had with Port Talbot workers after a recent steel demo outside Parliament.

Starmer said that they all had similar discussions – “It was about going green with green steel.”

He added that a Labour government would “roll up its sleeves” and support the industry with what it needs to make that transition, including through ‘match funding’, and other forms of logistical, technical and financial support.

“I want the future of British steel to be in Britain,” he noted. “I’ve sat down with your reps and talked through the ABC of how we’re going to [achieve the transition] and I’m determined if we come into power, we’ll put that all in place – not just to save the steel industry, but preserve it for the future.”

Later, Unite delegate James Reilly (pictured below) asked Starmer about nationalising energy, in particular the electricity transmission grid. He highlighted Unite research which made a “detailed, compelling case for nationalising energy”.

Starmer acknowledged Unite’s research which he said he’s carefully considered, and also noted that resolving problems with the grid would be absolutely vital in the transition to clean energy. He admitted that he didn’t think he could make the case for nationalising energy at the height of the cost of living crisis because at least at present, he didn’t believe it would bring down the cost of people’s energy bills.

But he said he remains open to ideas and that he would “continue to come [to Unite conferences] and be held to account”. He highlighted a new institution that a Labour government would establish – Great British Energy, a publicly owned energy company, which would create highly skilled, well-paid jobs and accelerate the transition to cleaner, cheaper energy.

Unite delegate Colin McKay (pictured below) from Scotland joined in the discussion after asking Starmer about the transition to net zero, and whether the Labour leader would commit to a worker-led just transition from oil and gas to renewables.

Starmer responded that on the transition to net zero, “it was vitally important that we get this right”. He said that while oil and gas were going to be part of the energy mix for decades to come, it was important to acknowledge that both will eventually come to an end.

“The worst thing we can do — a dereliction of duty for me —  would be not planning for the future, the transition to the next generation of jobs,” he said. “That was the terrible scar of coal-mining: a government that didn’t care about the transition, and didn’t plan for the transition. And we’re still suffering the consequences decades later, of the failure to get that transition right.”

Starmer then went on to say he was committed to a fair transition, which would mean that all new jobs are located where the jobs they’ll be replacing are now, and that they are secure, highly skilled and well-paid.

Unite delegate Wayne Cespedes (pictured below) went on to ask the Labour leader whether a future Labour government would ensure rights for trade unions so that they can organise, represent and negotiate on behalf of their members. He also asked for a commitment to trade union access in workplaces and to create a structure for sector-wide bargaining agreements across all key industries.

Starmer responded that he would be “all in favour” and “supportive” of such agreements. He highlighted Labour’s ‘New Deal for Working People’ which includes a mechanism for ‘collective agreements’ and ‘fair pay agreements’.

He gave the example of the care sector, which he pointed out was largely in the private sector, disparate across the whole country, and very low-paid.

“We need an agreement, negotiated by trade unions, that binds the whole country and everyone benefits from whatever agreement you put in place,” he told conference, highlighting also that his sister is a care worker and so improving the sector is something he feels personally passionate about.

Unite delegate Malcolm Davies (pictured below) asked Starmer about his position on anti-trade union law and legislation and what a future Labour government would repeal once in power.

Starmer said a Labour government would unequivocally repeal the Trade Union Act 2016, as well as the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill which is set to become law in the coming weeks. But beyond this, Starmer said he would introduce new ‘day one’ rights for working people.

“They’ll be stronger rights than any Labour government has ever brought in, and we’ll put them on the statute book,” he said.

Finally, Unite delegate Hazel Kirwin (pictured below), an NHS pharmacist, asked the Labour leader what he would do as prime minister to tackle the issue of pay inequality within the public sector, which she said has been made worse by the outsourcing of services, and the use of agency and insecure work.

Starmer acknowledged that outsourcing was a huge driver of pay inequalities in the NHS, and said that Labour has already committed to “the biggest wave of insourcing we’ve ever seen”.

Vowing to tackle low pay and pay erosion in the NHS and wider public sector, Starmer added, “I would consider the next Labour government to be a failure if it didn’t deal with the scourge of low pay and the pay stagnation that we’ve seen for the last thirteen or fourteen years.”

The Labour leader concluded his Q&A session by emphasising the need to win the next general election.

“We need to work together to win that election,” he said. “Because if we lose it, it would be the fifth general election defeat for the Labour Party in a row. That doesn’t help working people one bit. It puts each and every one of you — and each and every person you represent — further back in the fight for secure jobs, better jobs, skilled jobs; in the fight for equality. Together, we can do this.”

By Hajera Blagg

Pics by Mark Thomas