Boris Johnson clearly doesn’t care about workers — so Labour needs to

A long-awaited employment bill was one of the most notable omissions from the Queen’s speech. So much for enhancing the rights of employees

James Moore@JimMooreJourno
Tuesday 11 May 2021 14:42
<p>Keir Starmer, right, has handed Angela Rayner a new brief about the future of work</p>

Keir Starmer, right, has handed Angela Rayner a new brief about the future of work

So what happened to Boris Johnson and his government “protecting and enhancing" workers rights?

A long-awaited employment bill was one of the most notable omissions from the Queen’s speech, despite the issue affecting millions of Britons.

It now looks set to languish unloved in the long grass of Whitehall, unless, perhaps, Labour wakes up to the opportunity this presents. True, that’s a big ask for a party that seems to have no clear idea of what it’s there for and who its voters are, and that has recently displayed all the communication skills of a dyspeptic parrot with tonsillitis.

But this is such low hanging fruit, such a glaringly obvious wedge issue on which the Conservative government is very visibility failing, that even the shadow cabinet ought to be able to pick the windfall up off the floor.

Except that it’s more than that. This is, for Labour, is also what you could call a marriage issue. By that, I mean it has the potential to unite disparate parts of the Labour coalition.

Young, socially liberal voters in metropolitan areas and university towns, who the party is in danger of losing to the Greens - as well as socially conservative red wall voters who the party desperately wants to win back.

These people tend to work in very different types of occupation (although there can be surprising similarities, see below). But they often face comparable problems when it comes to bosses who wage war on workers with the complicity of the Conservative government if not its active support.

This is as true of the graduate trainee at KPMG, as it is of the middleaged worker forced to seek employment in an Amazon fulfilment centre where unions report incidences of staff not going to the toilet for fear of missing gruelling productivity targets.

It’s as true for the young woman tearing around London’s streets for Deliveroo because she couldn’t find anything else after finishing her university course as it is of the forty-year-old father of three in the north, freelancing at a mini cab firm after a bout of downsizing at the factory where he’d worked for years. No guaranteed hours, no sick pay, no holidays, no rights. Their issues aren’t so very different.

Labour is for jobs and fairness. No it’s not a snappy slogan. But neither was “get Brexit done” and that one worked out pretty well for Boirs Johnson. Just say it Keir Starmer! It’s a potentially unifying theme that the entire party could get behind and run with.

And yet I sometimes wonder. Just look at the resurrection of Peter Mandelson with his warnings about dastardly left-wingers at trade unions, as if the entire movement was set up to sweep voters into the arms of the Tories.

Mandelson can put a slogan together. He was a highly skilled practitioner of the arts of political communication and branding in his day. Labour could surely do with upping its game on that front. It sometimes seems as if it would struggle to spin a record on a fully automatic turntable let alone a message. Trouble is, Mandelson seems not to have recognised that the world has moved on from the days when Tory attacks on union “dinosaurs” - like Len McCluskey - had any sort of resonance.

The debate has changed and millions of vulnerable workers - with collars both white and blue - are now asking “who the hell speaks for us” as they worry about whether the next month’s pay cheque is going to turn up if they even have jobs where regular pay cheques, and regular hours, are part of the deal.

Work, the future of it, and the problems coughed up by the labour market every day, these are issues the Conservative Party seems content to ignore.

It’s an open goal for Labour to boot into the back of the net if the leadership could just see the penalty spot.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments