Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer gives a speech setting out his vision for the country, a day after Rishi Sunak made five promises to voters in his first big address of 2023.
The UK is facing the biggest outbreak of industrial action in a generation as thousands of workers across the NHS, transport, civil service and other sectors strike for better pay and conditions in the face of soaring inflation.
Union-led strike action has declined in recent decades – but this is not the first time mass walkouts have brought the country to a standstill.
From the onset of the industrial revolution, workers have been withholding their labour to bargain for more money and job security, achieving landmark gains such as eight-hour working days and equal pay for women.
But not all strikes are successful, with many resulting in a crackdown on union activity and no concessions for workers.
Often, the outcome has depended on the strength of the government at the time and public support behind the movement.
Political reporter Faye Brown looks at some of the biggest strikes in the last 100 years or so, and how they ended:
TUC General Secretary Paul Nowak said: “This is an attack on the right to strike. It’s an attack on working people. And it’s an attack on one of our longstanding British liberties.
“It means that when workers democratically vote to strike, they can be forced to work and sacked if they don’t.
“That’s wrong, unworkable and almost certainly illegal.”
RCN General Secretary and Chief Executive, Pat Cullen, said: “Curtailing workers’ freedom to participate in lawful industrial action is always undemocratic and we will look closely at what the government releases next week.
“We will meet with ministers to see their evidence for the pay process.
“However, only negotiations on our dispute can avert the planned action this month and I urge the prime minister to show a renewed sense of urgency, grasp the nettle and negotiate with nurses without further delay.
“As for minimum staffing, last month’s action was safe for patients because of detailed discussions we chose to initiate with the NHS to protect emergency services and life-saving care.
“The public respected that and even ministers acknowledged our constructive approach.
“Safe staffing levels that are set in law are what we want to see year-round not just in these extreme circumstances.”
Gary Smith, GMB General Secretary, said: “A government that has presided over 13 years of failure in our public services is now seeking to scapegoat the NHS staff and ambulance workers who do so much to care for the people of our country.
“The NHS can only function with the goodwill of its incredible staff and attacking their fundamental right to take action will alienate them even further and do nothing to help patients and the public.”
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer made clear earlier that he would repeal any anti-strike legislation passed by the government (see 11.18 post).
Deputy leader Angela Rayner has reiterated this in light of the government confirming details of proposed legislation which it says it will introduce to parliament in the “coming weeks”.
“These proposals are unworkable and unserious from a dead-end government,” she said.
” It’s insulting to key workers that Rishi Sunak thinks that threatening teachers and nurses with the sack will end strikes.
“At every stage the government has sought to collapse talks and throw in last minute spanners.
“Now the prime minister is wasting time on shoddy hurdles that even his own transport secretary admits won’t work.
“Labour is united against this attack on fundamental British freedoms.
“We will oppose this bill and repeal these restrictions on the right to strike.”
Grant Shapps has rejected criticism that proposed new anti-strike legislation will affect the human rights of trade union members.
As we reported in our last post, the government has announced it will propose legislation enforcing minimum levels of service in the fire, ambulance and rail sectors in the “coming weeks”.
“Civilised European nations, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, they all have some form of minimum safety levels,” the business secretary said of the move.
Mr Shapps also said that the International Labour Organisation (ILO) has said there is “nothing wrong” with such a policy “when it’s a question of life and death”.
“The idea that there may not be an ambulance coming because there’s a strike on, I think, is unacceptable,” he continued.
“We’re not proposing to go the full hog. Other countries, parts of America, Canada, Australia, they have legislation which bans those blue lights entirely from going on strike.
“We’re not proposing that. I think it’s very reasonable what we’re suggesting but I think the time has come and it brings us into line with other European nations.”
Asked if the bill was “political theatre” that will not do anything to deal with the current wave of striks, Mr Shapps replied: “I’d rather we never have to go down this route.
“In the most recent strikes, for example, with ambulances, you had the Royal College of Nursing, who in the nurses strike did agree at a national level what the minimum safety level would be but with the ambulances that was left to a postcode lottery effectively, and I think it’s that that’s unacceptable.
“So what I’m hoping is that across the economy, because this would apply in lots of different areas of the economy, I’m hoping actually that unions and the employers can get together and do sensible things in order to guarantee of minimum safety or service level in each different area. That will always be the preference.
“What we’re going to do is take the powers to impose that if required.”
The business secretary said the bill would be introduced “quickly” into parliament and “I see this going through” due to the Tory majority in the Commons.
Mr Shapps expressed his hope for a more “cooperative” spirit with the next pay settlements for public sector workers, but said the final decisions lie with the independent pay review bodies.
“What we’re going to do is actually be completely open with our information and publish the data, invite the unions to do the same,” he said.
“I hope to have a much more cooperative spirit as we go into the pay supplements for this year 23/24.”
The government has announced that it will propose legislation enforcing minimum levels of service in the fire, ambulance and rail sectors in the “coming weeks”.
Anti-strike legislation has been promised for weeks by the government, but now we are seeing concrete details of what the proposed bill will contain.
It comes in the wake of the current strikes – with ambulance workers and rail staff taking action, and firefighters currently balloting on walking out.
Announcing the move, a Business, Energy and Industry Strategy spokesperson said: “The government will introduce a bill in parliament in the coming weeks to take the power to ensure that vital public services will have to maintain a basic function and deliver minimum safety levels during industrial action.
“Minimum safety levels will be set for fire, ambulance and rail services and the government will consult on the adequate level of coverage for these sectors, recognising that disruption to blue light services puts lives at immediate risk.”
It had been reported that more sectors would be impacted by the proposed laws, but it seems they have been put on a warning by the government.
The spokesperson added: “For the other sectors covered in the bill, which includes health services, education, nuclear decommissioning, other transport services and border security, the government expects to continue to reach voluntary agreements, and would only look to consult on minimum safety levels should these voluntary positions not be agreed.”
In the same announcement, the government announced it would be bringing forward its negotiations for next year’s pay review body.
Business Secretary Grant Shapps said:”We hugely value the work of our public services and we’re reaching out to unions to have an honest conversation on pay, conditions and reform.
“Industrial action is disruptive for everyone – from people relying on essential services to get to work or care for their family to hard-working business owners whose sales suffer.
“It also costs those striking at a time when family budgets are tight.
“As well as protecting the freedom to strike, the government must also protect life and livelihoods.
“While we hope that voluntary agreements can continue to be made in most cases, introducing minimum safety levels – the minimum levels of service we expect to be provided – will restore the balance between those seeking to strike and protecting the public from disproportionate disruption.”
You can read more here:
When comparing Rishi Sunak and Sir Keir Starmer’s speeches this week, it is clear that both were done for the same reason.
The next general election is looming and the leaders want to set out their stalls to win over votes.
So what did Mr Sunak and Sir Keir say in the respective speeches? Let’s go back over them.
Helpfully for a recap, the prime minister used his speech to make five promises to the public on what he wants to deliver. These are:
None of these promises are particularly radical, and would not look out of place in any theoretical Conservative government.
The ways in which he planned to achieve these goals were thin on the ground, but he said the public would be able to “judge us on the effort we put in and the results we achieve” – hinting the endpoint would be whenever the next election is called.
Mr Sunak was asked by the media over what timescale he planned to deliver his plan, but he said it would be wrong to give a target month for his goals.
Moving away from the more traditional Tory promises he had made, Mr Sunak also laid out his plans to get all students up to the age of 18 studying maths in some way.
He said this reflects the state of the world where numbers underpin the professional world, and that it would bring the UK into line with the other parts of Europe.
Sir Keir Starmer
The Labour leader started his speech by pointing out that he booked the venue – the one the PM used the day before – first.
It was reported that Mr Sunak brought his speech forward to make sure he got ahead of Sir Keir.
But it was Sir Keir who ended up copying from the other side’s notes, as he seized the Leave campaign’s slogan of “take back control” and co-opted it for his plan to devolve power away from Westminster.
The Labour leader promised to introduce a “take back control” bill if he became prime minister.
It follows a speech last year, in which he used a Gordon Brown-authored report to say how Labour would give communities more decision-making powers.
And making his case for a general election, Sir Keir said Mr Sunak was a member of the party which had led the country to the point it was in now.
He notably said that Labour would not be getting its “big government chequebook” out, and also railed against short-term “sticking plaster politics” that have been used by the government rather than long-term solutions.
Pushed by political correspondent Ali Fortescue on what he would do about the NHS and strikes, Sir Keir failed to provide details on what his policies would entail.
He instead repeated his line on “sticking plaster politics”, and said he would try and change things in the long term.
Two leaders, two speeches and two visions for Britain.
The incumbent Rishi Sunak this week only promised what he’s sure he can deliver, while his challenger Sir Keir Starmer showed on Thursday that he’s in a completely different zone.
When the Labour leader was up against the flamboyant Boris Johnson, Sir Keir at times struggled to have impact.
But the fall of Mr Johnson, the ensuing Tory chaos and Labour’s 20-point lead in the polls has changed the race and seems to have given the Labour leader a new gear.
His New Year’s speech in east London was in many ways straight from the Tony Blair playbook.
Sir Keir was the candidate of change, Labour the party of change and his government the deliverer of political change that would bring about a “decade of renewal”.
Against the backdrop of soaring inflation and recession, a cost of living crisis, crippling strikes and an NHS in crisis, Sir Keir has the far easier job: lob rocks at the government and promise a thoroughly fed up public Labour will do it better.
The rolling Number 10 turmoil during the reign of Mr Johnson and Liz Truss has made it easier still as Sir Keir used this speech to criticise the “sticking plaster politics” of Westminster which might patch up problems in the immediate moment but doesn’t offer the solutions the country needs.
“You saw it yesterday from the prime minister. Commentary without solutions, more promises, more platitudes. No ambition to take us forward, no sense of what the country needs. Thirteen years of nothing but sticking plasters.”
Pitching himself as the candidate of change, Sir Keir went on to argue that a Labour government would bring in the change, as he promised the public a “take back control bill” in the first year of a new Labour government to devolve power away from Westminster to local communities.
After being obliterated by Mr Johnson with that slogan in the 2019 general election, Sir Keir turned it to his own advantage to goad his political rivals.
“We will embrace the take back control message, but we’ll turn it from a slogan to a solution, from a catchphrase to change.”
The promise of devolution was made by Sir Keir last month in a keynote speech, but in his New Year one he again used it as a way of using it to argue that Labour offered a different vision of Britain and said he would outline his “missions” in the coming weeks.
Labour then using 2023 to begin sketching out the policies that will form the basis of its next manifesto.
It was unquestionably a more visionary speech than Mr Sunak’s, but Sir Keir carries none of the baggage of prime ministerial predecessors or the responsibility of being in office weighing Mr Sunak down.
For if Sir Keir’s speech was one that sketched an idealised vision of Britain under a new Labour administration doing things different, Mr Sunak’s was one very much grounded in realism.
Far from a fresh beginning, the Conservative prime minister was haunted by ghosts past in his new year speech.
In a nod to the empty promises of Mr Johnson and the recklessness of Ms Truss, Mr Sunak’s pitch was to rebuild trust with the public, only promise what he could deliver and try to quietly get on with the job of working on “the people’s priorities”.
Mr Sunak is dealing with the fall-out of the pandemic and the war in Ukraine.
He’s contending with a recession and soaring inflation, and the legacy of his two predecessors, which damaged the reputation of his party and government in the eyes of his voters. His then is a much harder pitch.
But the big question for both these men is whether their respective visions for the UK will win over the voters.
Mr Sunak knows, after the promises of Mr Johnson and Ms Truss, that voters want delivery from the government and has chosen targets – cutting NHS waiting list and stopping illegal migration – that he hopes will return disgruntled voters to the Tory fold at the next general election.
Sir Keir has positioned himself as the change candidate – that word uttered 17 times in his speech – with the promise of doing politics differently.
But in reality, he doesn’t need much to change this year in order to win the next general election, given Labour is 20 points ahead in the polls.
The candidate that needs change this year is Mr Sunak, who made the economy the centrepiece of his five-point plan.
Mr Sunak hopes that falling inflation and economic growth into 2024 will give the Conservatives a shot at the next general election.
Economic recovery will enable the Tories to promise tax cuts whilst also giving them an angle to attack Labour by questioning their economic competence.
“Keir Starmer has to set out plans bedded in economic reality too,” is how one No 10 insider put it (there’s a reason Sir Keir made a point about not getting out the spending chequebook in his speech).
Hints of battles to come. These two leaders this week setting out their stall for 2023 in a year which both parties know will be critical in deciding who will win in 2024.
For now, it’s clear Sir Keir and Labour are still very much in the driving seat.
James Cleverly, the foreign secretary, has responded to Sir Keir Starmer’s speech earlier today.
The Labour leader was talking the day after Rishi Sunak set out his own agenda for the year ahead. In his speech, Sir Keir laid out plans for a “take back control” bill to devolve power away from Westminster.
Speaking this afternoon, Mr Cleverly said: “What I saw, I think what the whole country saw, from that speech was a bit of a vacuum.
“He spoke a lot but didn’t really say anything.”
Sir Keir launched placed similar charges at the PM’s feet over the “five pledges” speech delivered by Mr Sunak yesterday.
Mr Cleverly said that the PM put forward “five very clear, measurable goals” while Sir Keir promised a “whole load of nothing – no firm commitments”.
The foreign secretary was asked about Sir Keir’s co-opting of the “take back control” slogan – which Labour are using to mean greater devolution.
Mr Cleverly said: “What we have seen with the Conservatives is that through the work of mayors like Andy Street in Birmingham, for example, through police and crime commissioners around the country, that we have really seen local communities take greater control over their own affairs.
“And actually, again, if Labour Party’s big idea is to not do anything themselves but just get other people to do it, well, that’s fine.”
Asked if it was hard for Mr Sunak to frame himself as a change after 13 years of Conservative government, the foreign secretary said Labour opposed the PM’s plans on anti-strike laws and controlling immigration – moves that have hindered the change the Tories want to introduce.
Within a few hours of Sir Keir’s speech, the Conservatives had also released a slick-looking attack ad, which highlighted the Labour leader’s past as a supporter of Jeremy Corbyn.
Sir Keir used his speech to distance himself from his predecessor, who has been kicked out of the parliamentary party.
A term coined by Franklin D Roosevelt, “the first 100 days” has taken on a symbolic significance for political leaders as a benchmark to measure the early successes of a president – or, in our case, a prime minister.
But for Rishi Sunak, it has taken 71 days for the new PM to even set out a serious domestic policy speech, finally on Wednesday laying down his five priorities for his time at Number 10.
And what he has come up with misses the mark when it comes to grasping the nettle of the crisis Britain is now in.
You can read political editor Beth Rigby‘s assessment of the PM’s big speech here:
Chris Heaton-Harris appears to have had his Twitter profile hacked – just weeks after Education Secretary Gillian Keegan’s profile picture changed to an image of Elon Musk without her knowledge.
A series of offensive messages, including racial slurs, were posted from the cabinet minister’s account from around 7am this morning – the first responding to a tweet by former MP Anna Soubry’s account which also seems to have been compromised.
Mr Heaton-Harris appeared to notice his social media had been compromised, posting: “My Twitter account was hacked this morning, messages not posted by me have now been deleted…”
But the cabinet minister’s account still appears to have been taken over, with another message quickly being sent.
You can read more from political reporter Sophie Morris here:
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