What would Keir Starmer do if he became prime minister? For many of us, it is a relief to be asking the question at all. Less than a year ago, following the Hartlepool by-election defeat, Labour was written off (not for the first time) as drifting into irrelevance, supposedly irreparably disconnected from the people it was founded to represent. Now, the party enjoys a sustained polling lead and appears to be a government in waiting – a remarkable turnaround, so soon after the disastrous 2019 election. Starmer has succeeded in the vital first step of bringing Labour back into contention as a serious alternative government. Now it is time to explain to voters what it wants to do when it wins power.
Extending decent work to all should form a big part of Labour’s conversation with voters in the coming months. It might be tempting for the party to prioritise managerialism and basic competence over vision-setting. Boris Johnson is extremely unpopular and appears to be dragging his party down with him. At the same time, Labour’s response to the cost-of-living crisis – a VAT cut, additional support for low-income households and a windfall tax on oil and gas companies – is electorally popular. But this will not be enough. Labour can rely neither on Johnson’s unpopularity nor on the persistence of elevated inflation at the time of the next election.
Jon Cruddas argues in The Dignity of Labour that going beyond its traditional ‘comfort zone’ of distribution and cash transfers offers Labour big opportunities. Putting the dignity of work at the heart of its political programme could help the next Labour government to regain the trust of many voters it has lost over the last two decades, by offering a ‘renewed conception of the good life’. The timing for such a programme of renewal is surely right, after the division of Brexit and the trauma of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The experience of the pandemic has strengthened the case for giving people greater empowerment, security and autonomy at work. The status of workers in the ‘foundational economy‘ – nurses, carers, supermarket workers, cleaners, refuse workers, HGV and delivery drivers, local government staff – rose precipitously. The tasks performed by these workers, sometimes ignorantly labelled ‘low-skilled‘ by politicians, and often undertaken on insecure, piecemeal contracts with poor benefits and conditions, kept the country going at a time of crisis. The experience of the pandemic was so jarring, and so lasting, that the contribution made by these “foundational” workers will not be forgotten. A future Labour government must make it a priority to repay the debt the country owes, by making the extension of decent work an explicit public policy objective.
In fact, many measures to achieve these ends are already party policy, having been announced by Angela Rayner at Labour’s 2021 conference. These include expanded flexible working rights, extension of sick and holiday pay to all workers, and introducing a single legal definition of worker. The impact of these measures would be profound. The detrimental effects of poor working conditions are well known. Health Foundation research found people in low quality work twice as likely to report health problems. Low pay and underemployment contribute to stark income and wealth inequality and once economic disadvantage sets in, it becomes self-perpetuating. Labour should therefore talk with renewed confidence about how it could, in Cruddas’ words, “reorder our economy in recognition of the dignity of labour”.
Labour’s offer is both better developed and more ambitious than previous attempts to promote decent work: the Taylor Review under Theresa May’s government, and Labour’s Future of Work Commission, led by Tom Watson. Both initiatives promised much but delivered little. It should be a priority for Starmer to ensure Labour’s current plans do not go the same way. (Rayner is Shadow Secretary of State for the Future of Work but has said surprisingly little on workers’ rights since last year’s conference speech).
A renewed focus on decent work is not without risks. Most obviously, UK elections are increasingly decided by the over-65s. Enshrining better working conditions and more job security into law can only have a limited appeal to the ever-growing numbers of retired voters who are entirely immune to the vagaries of the labour market. At the same time, Labour needs to be wary of talking up the economic ‘benefits of Brexit‘. Shutting down talk of rejoining the EU is a tactical necessity. But there is nothing to be gained from pretending to believe in a post-Brexit jobs boom that will not materialise.
Labour’s climate commitments also present significant workforce challenges. The party’s £28bn annual green investment fund is vastly more ambitious than the government’s programme, and shows Labour understands the enormity of the climate crisis. But the pace of Labour’s plan implies major disruption to many workers’ lives, requiring significant levels of reskilling and redeployment. The disruption implied by Labour’s climate programme sits uncomfortably alongside its emphasis on providing greater work security. The recent Fabian Society report on climate change is helpful on how politicians should discuss net zero commitments. But more work is needed to ensure the ambition of the programme does not undermine the compelling story Labour can tell on job security.
Around two years out from the next general election, Labour is in a promising position. But the party has been in similar positions before, only to be routed at election time. Greater exposition of Labour’s policies on workers’ rights, linked to a broader discussion of the values associated with decent work, can help Starmer’s ‘security, prosperity, respect’ slogan to resonate with voters; and help voters understand what the next Labour government might do in power.
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