Union leaders have urged Sir Keir Starmer to be bolder with his vision for the country if he wants to win the next election and lead Britain out of decline.
In a message to the potential future incumbent of Downing Street, union chiefs said the Labour leader needed to offer a more positive message than simply being “better than the Conservatives”.
The choice words were delivered at the Trades Union Congress (TUC) annual conference in Liverpool, where issues like workers’ rights, the state of public services and the cost of living crisis are being hotly debated.
Politics latest: Speaker gives update on ‘China spy’ allegations
Paul Novak, the new general secretary of the TUC, delivered a rousing speech on Monday, claiming the Conservatives have “broken Britain” and calling for change in the form of a Labour government.
But while Labour traditionally enjoys the support of unions, the party’s perceived move to the centre, with a focus on fiscal Conservatism, has attracted anger among the movement.
Sharon Graham, leader of Labour’s biggest union donor Unite, has accused the party of becoming a “1990s tribute act” to former prime minister Tony Blair.
Despite winning three elections, she told Sky News that Sir Keir’s leadership needs to be more radical than then because there is less money in the public coffers to spend – and options such as wealth taxes and nationalising energy should be considered to raise capital.
In a reference to the post-war Labour government of Clement Attlee, which founded the NHS, she said: “Britain is in crisis. And what we need to do now is not to look back to 1997.
“What we need to do is be more like in 1945. The country needs a reboot and Labour needs to put policies forward that give it that reboot.”
‘No wealth tax under a Labour government’
Green protesters interrupt Starmer’s education speech
That sentiment was echoed by the leader of the PCS union that represents civil servants.
Mark Serwotka, a Labour member, said Sir Keir needs to offer a vision for people to vote for Labour “that is more than just ‘we’re better than the Conservatives'”.
He told Sky News: “Britain is in crisis. We’ve got people waiting for 15 hours in ambulances, schools being shut through crumbling concrete, a 180,000 backlog of asylum cases because of lack of staff and incredibly £45bn in uncollected tax because we don’t have enough staff in tax offices. A crisis needs urgent and radical action.”
Mr Serwotka called on Labour to offer things like free school meals, a record investment in public services and a clamp down on tax evasion.
He denied “singing from a different hymn sheet” to Mr Nowak, who urged the trade union movement to unite behind Labour “to kick this rotten government out”.
Mr Serwotka insisted: “I want to see a Labour government, but I don’t want to see a Labour government that comes in and tells people that they’ve ‘still got to live in poverty, there’s nothing much we can do about it’.
“The point of a Labour government is to offer hope to those currently in despair. And the way to do that is to say ‘we will be bold, we will invest in our communities’.”
In a direct challenge to the Labour leader, he added: “If I had the chance to talk to Keir Starmer, I would say to him, enthuse those voters who didn’t vote Labour last time. Tell them why you would make a difference to their lives and you can win an election. But if you only rely on not being a Conservative, you risk winning the election. So be bold.”
Starmer: Labour ‘absolutely focused on future’
After more than a decade out of power, Sir Keir is hoping to become the first Labour prime minister to win at the ballot box since Mr Blair – who secured two more terms after his landslide victory in 1997.
He has sought to rebuild the party focusing on a more centrist style than his predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn, and has stressed the need for fiscal Conservatism amid bleak warnings about the state of the UK economy.
In recent months, he has rowed back on a number of big spending commitments, arguing Labour will only get into government if they are trusted to handle the public finances.
However, he insisted there is still “a lot of common ground” with trade unions when asked about the criticism.
Speaking ahead of a dinner with union leaders in Liverpool tonight, Sir Keir said: “The Labour Party is absolutely focused on the future, not the past, and the challenges that we will inherit if we’re privileged enough to go into government.
“The central challenge will be growing the economy. Within that is dignity and respect for working people in their working environment.”
Asked how he plans to keep unions on side, he added: “The Labour Party and the trade unions have had a long relationship together and we had a big session at the beginning of the summer where we agreed policy going forward.
“So what you’ll see here is a lot of common ground as we go towards what we know will be really huge challenges.”