Friday briefing: Unions say Keir Starmer has backtracked on workers’ rights – are the criticisms fair?

<span>Keir Starmer at the National Farmers’ Union conference in 2023. </span><span>Photograph: Ben Birchall/PA</span>
Keir Starmer at the National Farmers’ Union conference in 2023. Photograph: Ben Birchall/PA

Good morning.

When Labour announced their workers’ rights package at the party conference in 2021, it was positioned as a progressive proposal centred on ensuring that the average worker in Britain would be protected and treated fairly. It was named A New Deal for Working People, reminiscent of the radical agenda set by the US president, Franklin Roosevelt, in the 1930s, a platform to cement Labour’s commitment to workers’ rights and bolstering unions.

The language was clear and decisive: from day one of employment, British workers would be guaranteed sick pay, holiday, parental leave and the minimum wage. They would scrap the qualifying periods for various rights like statutory maternity leave and flexible working requests. The definition of worker would be changed in law to make sure that everyone had the same protections, giving relief to millions, particularly those in insecure employment.

Angela Rayner, the party’s deputy leader, promised that these changes would be implemented within 100 days of Labour winning a general election. It was, as far as pledges go, popular and progressive.

Two years later and the party is being accused of “betrayal” by unions for diluting that proposal – a charge they vehemently deny. For today’s newsletter, I spoke with Guardian deputy political editor Jessica Elgot about whether anything has really changed. That’s right after the headlines.

Five big stories

  1. Israel-Gaza war | More than 100,000 people have fled Rafah after Israel intensified its bombardment, UN officials have said, in the largest movement of people in Gaza for months. It comes as Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed that Israel will stand alone and “fight with our fingernails”, despite US threats to further restrict arms deliveries if the army proceeds with its offensive on Rafah.

  2. Climate crisis | The world is on the verge of a climate abyss, the UN has warned, in response to a Guardian survey that found that hundreds of the world’s foremost climate experts expect global heating to soar past the international target of 1.5C.

  3. UK politics | Labour’s newest MP has apologised for defending her ex-husband and casting doubt on his victims’ testimonies after he was convicted of sexually assaulting two women. Natalie Elphicke, the MP for Dover who defected from the Conservatives on Wednesday, said she condemned Charlie Elphicke’s “behaviour towards other women and towards me”.

  4. Immigration and asylum | Keir Starmer will promise to rip up the government’s Rwanda scheme and divert £75m to fund hundreds of new specialist officers to tackle people-smuggling with new counter-terror powers, at a speech today in Dover.

  5. Brian Wilson | A judge has found that Beach Boys founder and music luminary Brian Wilson should be in a court conservatorship to manage his personal and medical decisions because of what his doctor calls a “major neurocognitive disorder”.

In depth: ‘What is there to stop employers finding a way around the rules?’

The main difference between Angela Rayner’s first green paper (pdf) on the new deal for working people and the latest leaked dossier is in the tone and tenor of the document. “The language felt very certain in that paper,” Jessica says, in contrast to the new document that was sent to the unions where the language has been significantly softened. There are now caveats to the promises that were made: “The ambitions have been couched with language that emphasises how long it is going to take to make these kinds of big changes,” Jessica says. Very little has been outright excluded from the original ambition, but the ways in which the party might achieve the goals have been tempered.

The main points of contention are around fire and rehire and zero-hours contracts, as well as the plans for legislation. Unite, Labour’s biggest union backer, has noted that the party has moved away from clearly promising to prohibit “fire and rehire”– the practice in which employers make workers redundant only to bring them back on worse terms and conditions. Though the party has said it continues to be committed to outlawing this practice, the leaked document adds the caveat that it is still “important businesses can restructure to remain viable … when there is genuinely no alternative”.

The union has also accused Labour of watering down the pledges on zero-hours contracts “to almost nothing”, as the new document adds that employees can opt in to a zero-hours contract if that works for them, as opposed to the original Rayner green paper which banned the contracts outright. Unions and critics believe that these stipulations give employers loopholes that leave workers in the same precarious position.


Why the change?

It is no secret that Labour have been trying to market themselves as the party of business. Both party leader Keir Starmer and his shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves, have been wooing the City for quite some time in order to hammer home the message that Labour can be trusted with the economy. Many business groups have been “fiercely lobbying” the Labour party to soften the workers’ rights proposals – Reeves wants to keep big businesses on board but she also wants these reforms to go through smoothly. “They are trying to reflect, what they would argue, are practical concerns that businesses might have,” Jessica says. “For instance, one common concern is about probation periods and getting rid of people who are underperforming. Labour have tweaked the language to make it clear employers can fire workers if they’re not doing the job properly but, again, the concern is that, by adding all of these caveats, what is there to stop employers finding a way around the rules, like making employees face extended probationary periods.”

The fundamental question here is about enforcement: is Labour’s new deal for workers’ rights going to be properly policed and enforced or is it largely going to be about best practice and guidance? Labour says they will create a watchdog to have oversight over rogue employers but how well-funded and resourced this will be is unclear.


It is still a big deal

Workers are facing hard times. The Conservative government has passed anti-strike laws, which Labour have promised to reverse, dismantled protections around unfair dismissal, which the new deal would tackle, and is trying to re-introduce employment tribunal fees. So, on the face of it, Labour’s plans should be a slam dunk for them but, astonishingly, that message is at risk of being lost. The party has “somewhat allowed what is a very remarkable and radical piece of policymaking to get bogged down in this row because of miscommunications based on their desire to not scare businesses,” Jessica says.

Labour are meeting with unions on Tuesday to go through the document “line by line”, so something positive may yet emerge. As Labour combats a reputation for u-turning and ditching policies when it looks politically convenient, the stakes for getting everyone on side are high.

What else we’ve been reading

  • Our reader interview with Ian McShane (pictured above) contains some killer lines – including his idea for a Lovejoy reboot and the fact that Richard Burton compared him to Elizabeth Taylor just before they kissed. Toby Moses, head of newsletters

  • Drake and Kendrick Lamar have entered a “verbal boxing match” in a series of diss tracks that have gotten progressively uglier in their insults and accusations. Nels Abbey unpacks why we cannot turn away from the feud and who is really profiting from it. Nimo Omer

  • The National Trust has been doing an incredible job of hitting back at a stream of right-wing criticism (including the idea that their scones had gone “woke”). Celia Richardson, their director of comms, explains how they’ve tackled the populists head on. Toby

  • The much-anticipated testimony from Stormy Daniels in Donald Trump’s hush-money trial was a revealing portrait of how the former president views sex and power: “That such encounters are usually not called rape does not mean that they do not index a gendered form of exploitation, the leveraging of a man’s money and position for access to an unwilling woman’s body,” Moira Donegan writes. Nimo

  • Karen McVeigh has spoken to Andreas Heide, a marine biologist who has made it his life work to tell the story of the Arctic ecosystem under threat due to the climate crisis. The images that accompany it are breathtaking. Toby


Football | Aston Villa’s European adventure came to a joyless end at the Georgios Karaiskakis Stadium, losing 2-0 to Olympiakos. A familiar face landed the killer blows, with Ayoub El Kaabi scoring his fourth and fifth goals of the tie to earn a 6-2 aggregate win.

Tennis | After his ­competitive spirit guided him to a narrow 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 win in the first round of the ­Italian Open, Rafael Nadal (pictured above) said he would “go for everything” to see if he was able to perform at the highest level by the time of the French Open.

Football | Sean Dyche has warned Everton could be forced to sell their best ­talent this summer unless the club is finally taken over. The Everton manager, who has previously likened his job to juggling sand, claims he will be reduced to “juggling dust” should the uncertainty drag into the transfer window.

The front pages

The Guardian leads with “‘Fear and trepidation’ as 100,000 people flee Rafah bombardment”. The Telegraph has “Hunt urges bank not to rush rate cuts”, while the Financial Times says “Anglo’s investors in South Africa open to sweetened takeover offer”.

The Mail reports “Worse whooping cough outbreak in forty years”. The Mirror follows the same story with “Whooping cough warning”.

The i has an interview with Boris Johnson’s former chief adviser under the headline “Cummings: ‘Boris and I saved thousands from Covid – but we won’t talk again’”. Finally, the Times leads with “Truancy up by a fifth on Fridays”.

Something for the weekend

Our critics’ roundup of the best things to watch, read and listen to right now

Inside No 9
BBC iPlayer
Every episode of Inside No 9 is dramatically different – and every episode is also essentially the same. Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton tend to begin each instalment of their magnificent comedy-horror anthology by summoning a scene of distinctively British mundanity: it’s small, it’s boring, it’s awkward, it’s wryly funny – the workaday greyness sparkles with fragments of laugh-out-loud hilarity. At this point, Shearsmith and Pemberton have used the formula almost 50 times. That it still produces such grimly fascinating, heart-stoppingly tense and peerlessly clever half-hours of TV is nothing short of miraculous. Rachel Aroesti

Knocked Loose: You Won’t Go Before You’re Supposed To
For all its immediately bracing energy, this is an indulgently rich record that keeps revealing more on double-digit listens. And at various moments, just when you thought it couldn’t get any heavier, it does. Take Blinding Faith, which seems as chaotic, fast and loud as speakers or headphones can countenance, and then, as Garris screams the title words, doubles in weight. Being crushed underneath this album is one of the great musical experiences of the year. Ben Beaumont-Thomas

Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes
Cinemas nationwide from today
After four ambitious and successful pictures, the reboot-prequel Planet of the Apes franchise now comes to what could well be the end, approaching the moment at which Charlton Heston and his crew crash landed, in 3978, in the original movie. Of course, if this one is a big hit, yet another prequel-episode could theoretically be squeezed in – but I hope not. It’s not that this movie is running low on energy or panache but the story is tangled and contrived and weirdly anticlimactic because that original film is starting to loom over everything like the Statue of Liberty’s shadow. All that happens has to match up with what we know is coming. Peter Bradshaw

Everything I Know About Me: Gemma Collins
Widely available, episodes weekly
From Towie’s glamorous car saleswoman to a stint on I’m a Celebrity, the mighty GC knows how to play the fame game. Returning for a second series, this five-part podcast is designed to squeeze out every detail of her life story and Collins delivers in a way that fans will appreciate, tempering heartache with quotability. Hannah Verdier

Today in Focus

Rishi Sunak staggers on – but for how long?

The prime minister is another MP down after Natalie Elphicke crossed the floor to join Labour. With the Conservatives trailing by 30 points after heavy local election losses, what options does Rishi Sunak now have? Guardian political correspondent Kiran Stacey tells Helen Pidd what these losses mean for the PM, and looks at what calculation Keir Starmer made in taking in a rightwing Tory.

Cartoon of the day | Ben Jennings

The Upside

A bit of good news to remind you that the world’s not all bad

Every competitor in the Eurovision song contest wants to win. But for some, the show is a chance to use their platform to talk about something more important. For this year’s entrants from Ukraine, alyona alyona (pictured, left) and singer Jerry Heil (right), it’s all about raising awareness of their home country’s children, who continue to face dire circumstances as Russia’s invasion rages on. The pair are working with United24, a charity set up by Ukraine’s government and backed by Mark Hamill, Barbra Streisand and Andriy Shevchenko among others, to raise funds and rebuild destroyed schools.

“Our children have lost their childhood,” says alyona alyona, who was a preschool teacher before finding musical success, “because Russia bombed more than 500 school buildings. It’s horrible.”

“Everybody asks us if we want to win,” Heil tells the Guardian’s Martin Belam. “But if Ukrainian music goes in the charts, on your personal playlist, on a daily basis, then we have won.”

Sign up here for a weekly roundup of The Upside, sent to you every Sunday

Bored at work?

And finally, the Guardian’s puzzles are here to keep you entertained throughout the day. Until Monday.