By Adam Peggs
At Party Conference Labour presented a green paper on its proposals for a “New Deal for Working People”, unveiled in Angela Rayner’s speech on Saturday and consisting of policies formulated by Andy McDonald and the Party’s trade union ‘Workplace Taskforce’.
The plans amount to some of the most detailed policy announcements since the last election and a robust, if not complete, programme on employment rights. After 18 months of the party facing criticism for a lack of big policy announcements the paper demonstrates a different way of doing things. While the document may help to calm unease and unrest among Labour members, this may have a limited impact – given the paper was published on the same day as proposals to curtail the influence of the membership.
As Rayner stated in her conference speech and Starmer in his lengthy essay for the Fabians, the Party is pledging to sign the proposals into law in 100 days of taking office. This would likely be the biggest single shift in employment rights since the rolling back of trade union powers in the 1980s and early 1990s.
The paper restates the party’s support for raising the minimum wage to a real living wage (though larger demands from BFAWU and UVW are not adopted), for scrapping bogus self-employment, raising sick pay and giving all workers rights on day one in the job. Alongside this, the paper pledges to outlaw fire and rehire practices, unpaid internships and zero hours contracts. These are policies for which there is already a consensus across most of the movement, but which would offer major improvements to the day to day lives of many workers.
Key pledges announced earlier in the summer are also reiterated. This includes the ‘right to switch off’ first adopted by France and advocated by Rebecca Long-Bailey in last year’s Labour leadership contest, with the paper stating “workers will have a new right to disconnect from work outside of working hours and not be contacted by their employer outside of working hours”.
This is very much a welcome policy. Unfortunately, the document does not respond to the particularly low rates of compliance with the French law. If the UK is to ever have an equivalent, it will need to be more watertight. Alongside this, the green paper calls for new rights to protect remote workers from surveillance and repeats its commitment to making flexible working a right – though there is no explicit mention of the earlier promise to allow employees to work remotely where viable.
The document does more than collect together employment policies from earlier in the year though. The paper advocates reviewing health and safety law to place mental health at work on a par with physical health. There is a commitment in this section on neurodiversity, though it is limited and overly vague – pledging to “raise awareness of neurodiversity in the workplace”. More promising is an assurance that Labour would “review provision for stress, mental health, the impact of new technology and new materials” on workforces.
Finally, and most significantly by far, the paper makes a number of commitments to strengthen trade union rights and move away from the neoliberal settlement. Firstly, as emphasised in Rayner’s conference speech, the Party is promising something called Fair Pay Agreements. This is a slogan for sectoral collective bargaining, the norm in much of Northern Europe and elsewhere – where trade unions and businesses in each sector agree minimum standards including minimum rates of pay. While this is no radical alternative to our extraction-driven political economy it could bring workplace rights and participation in the UK up to the standards of countries like Germany and France. And a reform like this could pave the way for a major reconstruction of the country’s diminished labour movement.
Further to this, the paper outlines a number of other promises for improving union rights. This includes ‘reasonable’ rights of access to workplaces for unions, likely to help with recruitment and improving awareness of employees’ existing rights. The Party promises to move away from the lengthy and complex system for trade union strike balloting, which is currently required to take place by post. Instead, the Party adopts a longstanding trade union demand for electronic ballots of workers.
There are also pledges to “update trade union legislation” and simplify the process by which unions can undertake industrial action. These measures could mark a step toward ripping up the Thatcher curbs on trade unionism. Finally, the document also promises that Labour will change the law so that employees are regularly reminded of their right to join a trade union – a simple measure which might help to significantly drive up membership.
Despite its merits, the green paper has some noteworthy limitations. A section on working time alludes to the need for work/life balance but fails to make a commitment to a shorter working week or even back the TUC’s short-time working scheme. The summer announcement of a maximum working temperature by McDonald does not feature, when in reality such a commitment needed to be developed further. The 2019 promise to repeal laws which obstruct the right to strike is also omitted, despite comments to this effect from McDonald earlier in the year.
These omissions demonstrate the need for bolder policies from the Party. Yet with proposals to cut the influence of Party members it is clear that this will be a difficult, uphill struggle. With the pandemic having underlined the depths of the social, economic and ecological crises confronting us, the New Deal is a strong start. But it will need to be bigger and bolder still.
Adam Peggs is a writer and activist based in Deptford, London.
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