Labour Recommits to Workers’ Rights Overhaul After Union Talks

(Bloomberg) -- Labour recommitted to a sweeping package of protections for UK workers after hours of meetings with key trade union backers, though the opposition party stopped short of agreeing to publish details of how it plans to implement the policy if it takes power in the upcoming general election.

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Keir Starmer and senior members of his Labour Party attended talks in London to try to defuse a growing row with union chiefs, who became alarmed at briefings to newspapers suggesting Labour would cave into business demands to water down its ‘New Deal for Working People’ in exchange for support.

After four hours of negotiations, Labour issued a statement with the unions promising no changes to the measures, which it said were agreed at the party’s national policy forum last year. “We will continue to work together at pace on how a Labour government would implement it in legislation,” it said.

Yet despite the show of unity, people familiar with the matter said Labour and the unions have not yet agreed on a final document setting out the policy for public consumption. That leaves the unions — some of whom contribute funding for Labour — and business, which Starmer wants to keep onside to support his plan for economic growth, without a clear picture of the party’s intentions.

Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner unveiled the ‘New Deal’ in 2021 with measures including a ban on so-called zero-hours contracts, a plan to ensure staff get full employment rights from day one in their jobs, as well as the “right to switch off” outside of normal working hours.

At the time, Labour said all would be introduced within 100 days of taking office, but the plans have been modified since the initial announcement. The proposed ban on zero-hours contracts, for example, now includes a caveat that workers can choose to opt in to that arrangement.

Labour’s argument is that changes from its 2021 announcement reflect the transition from a headline promise to actual legislation. Officials also say unions — with the exception of Unite — signed up to the altered plans at the party’s national policy forum and that nothing has changed since.

Yet it is that final plan for how to legislate the changes that is causing Starmer and his team a major headache. Ahead of Tuesday’s meeting, Unite General Secretary Sharon Graham said a document with Labour’s policy strategy, which was circulated to union leaders before the talks, was “unrecognizable” from the original proposals. She accused the leadership of “betrayal.”

The argument over workers’ rights is part of a broader struggle within Labour about the leadership’s intentions if, as the polls suggest, the Conservative Party is ousted after 14 years in office in an election due by the end of January. Starmer’s pitch around restoring stability has frustrated those in the party who want a more radical vision and to overturn the legacy of Tory rule.

Others, especially on the right of the party, want an approach that is more business-friendly. Labour grandee Peter Mandelson, for example, has called for the ‘New Deal’ plans to be ditched.

Given the tensions, unions will see Labour’s statement on workers’ rights as a victory — even if the details are still being thrashed out.

“We had a very good meeting today,” Trades Union Congress President Matt Wrack told Times Radio. “We’re in a very good position to present something to the electorate that will, I think, win votes for Labour.”

--With assistance from Eamon Akil Farhat.

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