Labour would repeal any new anti-strike laws if it wins the next election, Sir Keir Starmer has said.
Addressing an audience in Stratford, London, the Labour Party leader confirmed he does not support new legislation which would place further restrictions on striking workers. “I do not think legislation is the way you bring an end to industrial disputes,” he said. “It is likely to make a bad situation worse.”
His comments come amidst reports from The Times which revealed Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is poised to announce a new law which would enforce “minimum service levels” in six sectors - including health, rail, and border security. This legislation, which is reportedy designed to minimise disruption, would allow employers to sue unions and sack staff if they do not retain a “minimum level” of service, the newspaper understands.
Other members of the Labour Party have also spoken out against the possible new measures. Deputy Leader Angela Rayner said: “It’s frankly shameful that this mess of a government thinks that threatening to sack nurses and teachers will stop strikes. These proposals are offensive, unserious and unworkable. Labour will turn the page on the Tories’ failed approach to industrial relations.”
But given that industrial action is continuing to take the country by storm, how exactly would Labour respond to public sector walkouts? Here’s what the party has said about strikes so far - as well as what is still yet to be addressed.
‘Get around the table’
Starmer’s repeated response to questions on how he would deal with strikes is saying he would “get in the room with unions” - or “get around the negotiating table.” This, he argued, is how you provide “fair pay deals” for workers.
The Holborn and St Pancras MP also slammed the government for refusing to engage in pay talks with nurses aftey they offered to “press pause” on industrial action. His comments echoed those given by Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves in December, who argued that the strategy of “getting around the negotiating table” and “treating workers with respect” is the reason “we didn’t have any strikes under the last Labour Government.”
She added: “This government has been sitting on its hands for five months, [so] people have got no one to blame but the government for this industrial action.”
‘Resolve the underlying issues’
Labour has also been insistent that the strikes would not be happening if it were in government, as it would solve the “underlying issues” causing them. In terms of the nurse strikes for instance, Starmer has said he has a “fully costed plan” to deal with the crisis in the NHS, which he believes would end walkouts.
This plan includes the biggest training programme in the health service’s history, which will provide more doctors, more nurses, and more health visitors to end staff shortages. Labour has also proposed a reform of the care system, which it believes at present is “hugely contributing” to the overcrowding in hospitals.
Starmer has also said it is “very important to understand how much people are struggling to make ends meet” - adding that the reason industrial action is happening is because workers are “facing a very real cost of living crisis.” Tackling this, he argued, would involve an end to the “sticking plaster politics” he believes is rife in Westminster. In other words, ministers “talking about problems” rather than doing anything, and approaching issues with a “short-term mindset”.
What about pay rises?
What Labour has thus far refused to do when it comes to discussing strikes is specify what type of pay rise it would offer public sector workers. On Thursday (5 January), when asked whether the government’s offer to nurses of a 2% increase is too low, Starmer said he could “not say what the right percentage is.”
Similarly, in December, Shadow Chancellor Reeves was also pushed on whether Labour would offer nurses the 19% pay award they are asking for. She responded: “I’ve always said Labour will not pluck numbers out of the air. Everything in our manifesto will be fully costed and fully funded.”
How does this compare to the government’s stance on strikes?
The government’s most significant response to strikes thus far has been to bring in new laws which force workers to “maintain a basic function and deliver minimum safety levels” in the public sector during industrial action. Confirming the news in a statement on Thursday (5 December), the business department said the government would “always protect the ability to strike” but added that “it must be balanced with the public’s right to life and livelihoods”.
The legislation will be put to the House of Commons “in the coming weeks” and outline minimum service levels for fire, ambulance and rail services for when the sectors decide to take action.
Previously, the government has used tactics such as to drafting in army personnel to take the place of striking workers. The military will stood in for Border Force officers during strikes at airports across the country over the holiday period, and were also trained up to help frontline health workers in the NHS.
Elsewhere, the Prime Minister also called a meeting of Cobra, the government’s emergency response committee, to discuss the strikes, but unions argued that instead of meeting each other, ministers should meet them to negotiate pay rises and other demands.
A spokesperson for 10 Downing Street commented: “What we are looking to do is to keep people safe and keep the country moving. Those are our aims, we’re not looking to worsen our relations with any group. We believe we’ve acted reasonably when it comes to both agreeing the payoff as recommended by the independent boards and in facilitating the discussions we need to reach some sort of resolution.
“Given what we’re seeing and the need to protect people from inflation we must also go further and consider further powers to try and mitigate against some of the disruption.”