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Editorial: Trade unions must be bolder than Labour in promoting an agenda for change

SIR KEIR STARMER’s insistence in his TUC Congress address that “a better approach is possible” is not exactly Che Guevara but his calls for a national plan for jobs and measures to protect stricken industries are welcome.

Yet the very modesty of Starmer’s vision is likely to undermine it.

The Labour leader calls on the government to act “with a bit of imagination,” but he would not even need that in order to press the conclusion — voiced by plenty of trade unionists in their addresses to Congress — that what we face is a crisis created by a market-driven economy which is incapable of rising to the challenges posed by Covid-19.

Take one of the sectors he names as requiring particular assistance, aviation. British Airways has been among the most prominent employers to deploy the “fire-and-rehire” tactic Starmer condemns.

Unscrupulous bosses have taken advantage of the Covid crisis to threaten workers with the loss of their jobs unless they agree to work for less.

The company stated — truthfully enough — that coronavirus has grounded most of its flights for months on end and catastrophically reduced its income (though it said less about its billions in reserves).

A company whose purpose is to turn a profit for shareholders has an obvious incentive for such attacks on the workforce. And the sector is in such trouble that the state has to step in to rescue it. The logic of nationalisation, one benefit of which would be an end to such abuses, is clear.

When the sector in question is a massive polluter in urgent need of reform if Britain is to reduce emissions, it does not take “a bit of imagination” to recognise the opportunity.

The arguments for public ownership and an end to profiteering off what should be public services cry out from sector after sector.

In education, the University and College Union raises the way marketisation has prevented universities from planning for students’ safe return.

On the rails, “the whole notion of privatised railways was shown up [by Covid-19] as the sick joke it has always been,” in the words of TSSA general sectary Manuel Cortes. 

Delegates have discussed the impact of privatisation on the NHS supply chain, the shocking failures of our outsourced corporate test-and-trace fiasco. Yet even with public health contracts being handed to friends of government advisers with no relevant experience, Labour pulls its punches.

None of this is surprising, since the Labour Party under Starmer has turned its back on systemic change even while a global pandemic makes the case for it stronger than ever. 

Some in the labour movement promoting the New Deal for Workers campaign have long pointed out that unions cannot afford to wait for a Labour government to deliver for workers, but need to develop an industrial movement capable of exerting political pressure.

Unions have done that successfully this year when allied to grassroots campaigns and street mobilisations — as over GCSE and A-level grades, or in postponing the end of the evictions ban.

It is clear however that pressure is the key — not merely making proposals but mobilising for them. The previous Labour leadership’s willingness to stand with workers on picket lines and march with them on protests showed it was happy to be part of action designed to bring about change.

Even outlining what such actions should be is rendered difficult in the midst of a pandemic, especially when the advice on safe gatherings changes with bewildering frequency. Nonetheless, if Starmer’s vision outlined today is modest, the labour movement’s as we have seen this Congress is not. 

Unions want a new deal. The majority of the public are opposed to any return to the pre-pandemic “normal.” Labour is no longer setting the agenda for the left, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have an agenda, one which on public ownership, jobs and pay can command mass support. 

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