WHEN it comes to Sir Keir Starmer, the past haunts the present in more ways than we think.

I was reminded of this with the 25th anniversary of the publication of “New” Labour Fairness at Work White Paper.

The 1998 paper was Tony Blair’s flagship policy for supposedly rebalancing the growing inequality of power between workers and employers in the workplace.

After nearly 20 years of Thatcherism, employers increasingly held the whip hand.

The most obvious sign of this was derecognising unions and refusing to recognise unions. Consequently, there were no bargaining rights over members’ terms and conditions of employment.

The manifesto “New” Labour fought the 1997 General Election on included a clear commitment to legislate to create a legal means for giving unions collective bargaining rights from recalcitrant employers: “where a majority of the relevant workforce vote in a ballot for the union to represent them, the union should be recognised”.

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Further pressure from the unions meant that when the White Paper was published, the commitment was to create a statutory means for union recognition “where a majority of the relevant workforce wants it”.

‘Simples!’ as the meerkats from the Compare the Market adverts were known to say.

The only problem was that in the run-up to the publication of the White Paper and the passing of the subsequent Employment Relations Act 1999, Blair invited a representative of employers, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), to sit down with the Trades Union Congress to negotiate over the way this manifesto pledge would be implemented.

This led to a many additional hurdles being imposed as a result of CBI lobbying.

One was that the bargaining unit for which union recognition was proposed must be compatible with effective management. Another was that in ballots, all those voting in favour of union recognition had to also equate to 40% of all those entitled to vote.

The National:

Effectively, non-voters were to become no voters and the use of balloting rather than checking union membership records meant employers had ample opportunity to cajole and threaten workers into abstaining in the ballot.

Initially, the Employment Relations Act did see a big rise in voluntary new recognition deals but this has massively dropped off highlighting the huge weaknesses of Act. Since the statutory union recognition mechanism was introduced on June 6, 2000, there have been just over 1300 applications for recognition with a less than 50% success rate.

All this highlights that, as union membership and collective bargaining coverage have fallen steadily, the Act is not fit for purpose if that purpose was to rebalance power in the workplace.

But then again, Blair did unambiguously announce in the foreword to the White Paper that, after the policies were implemented: “Britain will [still] have the most lightly regulated labour market of any leading economy in the world.”

Fast forward some 25 years.

In 2021, and in recognition of the limitations of the statutory union recognition procedure, Labour adopted its “New Deal for Working People”.

This set of policy proposals stated: “Labour will simplify the process of union recognition and establish a reasonable right of entry to organise in workplaces. Labour also will end the current complexity and remove barriers to workers being collectively represented by a recognised union in their workplace.”

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And: “Labour will simplify the law around statutory recognition thresholds, so that working people have a realistic and meaningful right to organise through unions. Labour will look at lowering the threshold, which is too high in many large firms. Labour will also consult on and consider whether unions should automatically be entitled to statutory recognition where 50% or more workers in a bargaining unit are members.”

But between its launch – in July 2021 – and July 2023, Starmer has reneged on the commitments laid out there. The July 2023 Labour Party National Policy Forum was the clearest evidence of this yet. It resulted in a document on workers’ rights which the Unite union abstained from supporting.

It does not seem an accident that from the summer of 2021 Labour’s poll rating began to rise and has now pretty much assured Labour of achieving a majority government come the next General Election.

Some might think this would have allowed Starmer to slacken the pace on taking Labour to the right.

Quite the opposite. It has merely confirmed in his mind the correctness of his strategy.

He is dampening down expectations of what a Labour government will do for the mass of working people, just as Blair did before the 1997 election.

This is all about not frightening the horses among the rich and powerful in Britain and abroad.

On workers’ rights, Starmerism is Blairism rebooted. Starmerism is decidedly not about smashing the “class ceiling”. It is a case of back to the future via the past.

Professor Gregor Gall is a Visiting Professor of Industrial Relations at the University of Leeds