The leader of one of the UK Labour party’s biggest union backers has urged Keir Starmer to be “brave” and present a more compelling vision for how he would change the country as prime minister.
Sharon Graham, general secretary of Unite the Union — which has given Labour tens of millions of pounds in donations over the past decade — said the party needed to set out its own “Plan B” for governing the UK as soon as possible. “This is the time to be brave,” she said.
Starmer, who became Labour leader two years ago, will be in the spotlight this weekend at the start of the party’s annual conference in Liverpool.
Labour is about nine points ahead of the ruling Conservatives in the opinion polls but with the next election barely two years away, some MPs fear that Starmer has not yet caught the public’s imagination.
Graham, interviewed at Unite’s London headquarters, said there was increasingly “clear blue water” between the two main parties under new prime minister Liz Truss, who is pursuing a vision of a low tax, low regulation future.
But she argued that it was not entirely clear what alternative Labour was offering, adding that the party should re-examine policies such as renationalising the energy industry.
“What needs to happen is that on the other side of that clear blue water there’s a clear plan. People will only see the difference if it’s plan A and plan B,” she said. “I’m not sure yet that it is robust enough at the other side. We need to be really clear what it is that we are offering as Labour.”
Starmer’s supporters point to a plethora of policy offerings that he has put forward, including a “Green New Deal” and a package of stronger rights for workers.
Yet some Labour MPs fear he is struggling to get his message across as the news agenda has become dominated by crises ranging from the Covid pandemic to the Ukraine invasion and the cost of living crisis.
“This is a battle of ideas but in order to have a battle of ideas you need ideas out front and centre,” said Graham. “They need to come out a bit more readily rather than waiting for the next election.”
Len McCluskey, the previous head of Unite, was a key powerbroker in Labour under leftwing former leader Jeremy Corbyn. When Graham took over a year ago she promised to dabble less in party politics and focus more on industrial disputes.
This summer has seen a rash of pay battles across the country as unions seek inflation-matching pay rises from reluctant employers.
As a result, Graham is spending much of her time on picket lines, with more than 100 active disputes, including high-profile strikes at the ports of Liverpool and Felixstowe, and around twice that number already resolved in workers’ favour, with pay rises running into double digits.
“I don’t see this settling down any time soon,” she said of the labour unrest, arguing that some employers were taking advantage of the economic downturn “to suppress pay unnecessarily”, while in the public sector, it was “clear they can afford to pay” workers more.
Graham also wants unions to do more to set the political narrative. She has hired forensic accountants, economists and statisticians to drive this work — including a new report that identifies sectors where Unite believes “rampant corporate profiteering” is fuelling the cost of living crisis.
The report points to oil refineries and petrol retailers, supermarkets and fertiliser producers, car dealerships and road freight operators — all areas where prices have risen sharply — as having made bigger profits in 2021 than in 2019.
The research will bolster Unite’s negotiating position with employers in the sectors concerned, Graham said, but she also hopes it will help counter claims that rapid wage growth is driving inflation. “If only — we’re nowhere near that,” she added.
Unite has not made any big one-off payments to Labour in the last year, contributing only its basic affiliation fees. Instead, it is funding campaigns in 12 constituencies Graham believes are critical to the next election on issues such as pensions and food poverty.
Next summer the union will have an internal debate about whether to remain affiliated to the party. Graham refused to signal her own position.
“I’m Labour, of course I am, but just because you are in something doesn’t mean you cannot be critical about what’s happening,” she said. “The Labour party needs to come in and offer other clear alternatives. You can’t say you don’t like something unless you say what you will do in its place.”
Graham argued that politics lends itself to “very short timescales” while Britain faces ingrained long-term problems. She said the Labour leadership needed to think more about “the five to 10 year response” instead of the “five to 10 minute response” to events.
Meanwhile she criticised Starmer for sacking a shadow minister for joining a picket line during the recent rail strikes. “I expect them to be more supportive of that. Every single dispute,” she said. “I haven’t moved the goalposts. Labour were formed out of the trade union movement to be the voice of workers in Parliament.”
Political parties had a tendency to “bash” the unions because they thought it would make them popular, she said. “I actually think it’s miscalculated . . . There’s a sense of fairness in Britain, people just want a bit of fairness.”