Yesterday, I resigned as Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State for Employment Rights and Protections. It was one of the hardest decisions I have had to make since being elected to Parliament almost a decade ago – but I am convinced it was the right one.
I accepted the role because I wanted to fight for the working people of this country. For years, wages in Britain have flatlined as trade unions have been under attack and conditions in the workplace have deteriorated. We all know the stories: people working two and three jobs to survive, families unable to put food on the table after a week’s work, zero-hour contracts which mean workers live at the beck and call of their bosses.
There is a crisis of work in Britain today, and we desperately need a Labour Party that is prepared to tackle it. That is what I took on the job to do, and I am proud of what we achieved. In the Employment Rights Green Paper launched this month, we set out a New Deal for Workers which would ensure a dignified standard of living, extend workers’ rights to everyone, tackle insecurity and strengthen our unions.
Throughout this process, however, there was considerable pushback from the party leadership. In the Green Paper, we said we needed ‘a fundamental change in our economy,’ and that ‘for this to happen the world of work must be fundamentally changed.’ But each time we tried to make those words a reality by proposing the kind of measures that would truly transform workers’ lives, our efforts were frustrated.
The tipping point occurred earlier this week, when the Leader’s office instructed me to go into a meeting to argue against a National Minimum Wage of £15 an hour and against Statutory Sick Pay at the living wage. This is something I could not do. After many months of a pandemic when we made commitments to stand by key workers, I simply cannot now look those same workers in the eye and tell them they are not worth a wage that is enough to live on, or that they don’t deserve security when they are ill.
The Labour Party’s current position to support a National Minimum Wage (NMW) of just £10 an hour is desperately outdated. The call for £10 is half a decade old, and I find it embarrassing in 2021 for us to not have greater ambition than poverty wages. Working people should be able to live, not simply survive. So conservative is Labour’s policy under the current leadership that we risk being outbid by the Tories, with the Government’s NMW set to reach £10.50 by the next election. It ought to be a basic point of principle for my party that working people be paid enough to raise them out of poverty and have a decent standard of living free from financial insecurity.
I have similarly despaired at the Labour leadership’s refusal to take a position on Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) beyond a vague call for it to be ‘increased’. SSP is currently a measly £96.35 per week, a figure which no government MP, or indeed any member of the shadow cabinet, would claim to be able to live on, so why on earth should we expect our constituents to?
We have seen throughout the pandemic how workers have been put in the despicable position of having to choose between isolating and eating, contributing to tens of thousands of tragic, avoidable deaths and an economic crisis.
The government squandered £37 billion on a failed test and trace system and has funnelled hundreds of millions to Tory Party donors in corrupt deals. Arguments that we cannot afford to raise SSP to the living wage level are just not credible.
The Labour leadership’s refusal to commit to any figure at all for SSP throughout the worst pandemic in a century is not just a missed political opportunity which has prevented us from being able to lay a glove on the government, but an act of cowardice which abandons the people we were elected to Parliament to represent.
We live in a time when the people of this country have a renewed awareness of how important the work done by millions of low-paid workers truly is. To have the leadership of the Labour Party, the party of working people, fail to realise this is a bitter blow.
When Keir Starmer was campaigning to be leader of the Labour Party, he approached me to ask for my support. I told Keir that although I was not backing his campaign, I thought he was likely to win the selection of the membership, and that I would be willing to serve in his frontbench team on the basis of the ten pledges that he made in his leadership bid to bring about unity within the party and maintain our commitment to socialist policies. I kept up my end of the bargain, but regretfully the leader has not kept his.
After eighteen months of his leadership, our movement is more divided than ever. Members are disenfranchised and trade unions are so excluded that some have even disaffiliated. All of this has come with no gain in the polls. In fact, you could argue that we are further from power now than at any time in recent memory.
Had Keir honoured the pledges he made to the membership, our party would be far more united and much closer to power than we now find ourselves. My message to Keir is that he must return to the ten pledges on which he was elected to the leadership by Labour members. If he fails to do so, he should go back to the membership to seek another democratic mandate as a matter of integrity.
I am immensely proud of the work that my team and the Party’s affiliate trade unions have done to produce Labour’s Employment Rights Green Paper. The document includes commitments to full rights from day one of employment for all workers, introducing Fair Pay Agreements across the economy, repealing anti-trade union legislation, and many other essential reforms to help workers get a fair shake in our economy.
But these policies will ring hollow unless they are accompanied by the kind of concrete commitments that can improve workers’ lives in the short term. That is why a National Minimum Wage of £15 an hour and raising Statutory Sick Pay to the Living Wage are so important. I will continue working with all of those in our movement who are determined to make these policies a reality.