Increased sick pay and stronger workers’ rights would form part of a “new deal” for employment under Labour, Sir Keir Starmer said.
In a major speech, the Opposition leader attacked Boris Johnson’s decision to hike national insurance, saying the Tories were “raising taxes on working families” as he sought to win back voters who deserted Labour for the Conservatives in 2019.
Sir Keir acknowledged the “uncomfortable truth” that in the face of Mr Johnson’s landslide majority it was difficult to force changes in Government policy from the Opposition benches.
The address, to a TUC conference being held online due to the Covid-19 pandemic, comes at a crucial time for Sir Keir ahead of his first in-person Labour conference as leader later in September.
In a speech which drew heavily on his personal experience as the son of a toolmaker, Sir Keir said his father worked from 8am to 5pm, came home for tea and then went back to work from 6pm until 10pm “to provide for our family”.
“The starting point is a job to raise a family on,” he said. “That means a real living wage”.
He restated Labour’s commitment to increase the minimum wage to £10 an hour.
Sir Keir added: “A job you can raise a family on must offer a solid foundation on which you can build your life, not worrying about how many hours you’ll be given the next week or how you’ll pay the bills if you fall ill.
“Labour’s new deal will provide that security by ensuring basic rights for all workers from day one in the job: including holiday pay; protection from unfair dismissal; and guaranteed sick pay.
“We have one of the lowest rates of sick pay in Europe. That’s not good enough, so as well as guaranteeing sick pay, Labour’s new deal will increase it as well.”
There were no details of the rate Sir Keir would like to see sick pay increase to, with Labour saying the party would “consult widely” on the appropriate level.
Labour would ban zero hours contracts and increase access to parental leave.
It would also outlaw “fire and hire” – the practice of sacking employees and then taking them back on worse terms.
Sir Keir’s address comes as he faces pressure to spell out how Labour would fund the £12 billion-a-year increase in health and social care spending announced last week by the Government.
While the party supports the increase in investment, it has condemned the Government’s plan to pay for it through an increase in national insurance contributions – but has yet to set out any alternative proposals.
Sir Keir said Mr Johnson’s party is “raising taxes on working families” but “Labour is the party of working people”.
Labour morale has been boosted by a YouGov poll earlier this month which showed the party with a lead over the Tories for the first time since January, but Sir Keir still faces a tricky conference with unrest on the party’s left over his direction.
Sir Keir emphasised the need for Labour to be in power in order to achieve his aims.
“The uncomfortable truth is that until we have a Labour government, our demands for change will be frustrated,” he said.
In a plea for unity across the Labour movement, he said: “We have an obligation to unite and work together.
“If we do we can take on this right-wing Government, win the next general election, and deliver the transformational change working people so desperately need.”
In a sign that relations between Sir Keir and Unite, the party’s biggest donor, remained difficult, the union’s general secretary Sharon Graham said: “Unite is now focused on defending our members’ jobs, pay and conditions.
“This is the only way we can make sure workers do not pay the price for this pandemic. This is happening now. Labour needs to do the same.”
Labour is thought to be making around 80 voluntary redundancies as the party tightens its belt.
TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady welcomed Sir Keir’s commitment to increase sick pay.
She said: “Keir today promised that the next Labour government will increase statutory sick pay and make sure everyone has access to it – including the lowest-paid workers.
“During the pandemic, too many couldn’t afford to self-isolate because sick pay is too low or they aren’t eligible for it at all. This badly undermined our public health effort during Covid.”