This year’s Labour conference – online, as befits the times – marked two very special speeches: the last by Dave Prentis as UNISON general secretary, and the first by Keir Starmer as Labour leader.
Both men paid powerful tribute to the public sector workers who have kept the UK on its feet during the COVID-19 pandemic.
And Mr Starmer said it was time for Labour “to get serious about winning” and repair the damage done to public services by a decade of Tory government.
The first of this year’s very different, COVID-affected party conferences started on Saturday, under the branding of Labour Connected and with the strapline A New Leadership.
Among UNISON speakers making their online addresses over the weekend were president Josie Bird, contributing to a debate on how women have responded to the pandemic and can strive to build a more gender-equal world, and senior vice-president Sian Stockham, who took part in a debate on the future of social care, setting out UNISON’s vision for a National Care Service.
‘Memories are short’
Speaking in Sunday’s debate, Putting our nation’s health and wellbeing at the heart of society, Mr Prentis thanked the key workers “who have given so much in the fight against COVID” – citing NHS staff, day care workers, nursery workers, shop workers, refuse collectors, teaching assistants and care workers.
He also remembered those workers who, tragically, “didn’t live long enough to see the rainbow flags in every window or hear the clapping at twilight when a nation applauded”, and lauded others who missed the applause because they were still, simply, too busy fighting the disease.
“But memories are short”, Mr Prentis added, warning of the danger of returning to the “normal” of austerity cuts, pay freezes and an NHS starved of resources.
“UNISON demands – and Labour must commit to a new deal for all our public services,” he said. A deal “where the NHS is rebuilt, with funding based on need; health services are run in-house for the public good, not private greed, where workers are appreciated, paid fairly, and valued.
“I have always believed that our movement stands on the shoulders of the giants of the past. But in 2020 we have new giants, across our four nations, whose courage, dedication and self-sacrifice have taken public services to new heights.
“Now is the time to reward them.”
Mr Prentis concluded by calling for Labour unity and a “focus on winning, not whinging.”
And in his impassioned and no-nonsense speech this morning, Mr Starmer appeared to answer all of the general secretary’s demands.
This was also the toughest he has been on the government, and particular on Prime Minster Boris Johnson, since he became Labour leader in April.
“To all the care workers, the van drivers, the cleaners, the shop workers and the lifesavers in the NHS, I just want to say: thank you. You changed lives for the better. You made a difference,” he said.
“And it makes me angry that, just when the country needs leadership, we get serial incompetence. Six months in, a Cabinet chosen on loyalty alone shows no sign of having learnt any lessons from the crisis.”
The Labour leader said that he, himself, had learned two things.
“First, if you neglect your public services, you won’t be ready when a crisis hits.
“Nobody blames the government for the existence of the virus. But the under-funding of the NHS, the abandonment of social care and the lack of investment in prevention – that’s all on their watch. That’s all down to them.
“And it always ends this way with Tory governments: public services are neglected, cut-back and left to decline. For a party called the Conservative Party, they don’t seem to conserve very much.
“The second thing I’ve learnt is that a crisis reveals character like nothing else. And I think we’ve learnt a lot about this Prime Minister. Tory backbenchers know it. His Cabinet knows it. We all know it. He’s just not serious. He’s just not up to the job.”
Coming out of the shadows
But the main thrust of Mr Starmer’s speech was the task his own party faced in earning the public’s support come the next general election.
“Until we come out of the shadows, this party can’t change anything,” he lamented. “The promise that brought us all into politics – to change the country for the better – is pointless if all we can do is object to endless Tory governments.
“So let’s be blunt. Let’s be brutally honest with ourselves. When you lose an election in a democracy, you deserve to … It’s time to get serious about winning. That means we have to change, and that’s what we’re doing.”
He reported progress in his promise to stamp out anti-Semitism in the party, and believed that Labour was becoming a “competent, credible opposition”.
The next step is to win public trust in how it addresses such issues as the economy, pay, housing, the climate, structural racism, the education gap and national security.
‘Our care workers are heroes’
He also had very specific words to say on social care.
“If we didn’t realise it already, we’ve learnt that care workers do some of the most vital work in society. Yet they’re under-paid, under-recognised and under-appreciated.
“Our care workers are heroes. But the social care system in Britain is a disgrace to a rich nation. The Tories have had a decade to sort it out, but they’ve done nothing.
“This is a matter of basic fairness and human compassion. The government needs to act and to act now.
“It must ensure that the mistakes made in the first spike cannot happen again this winter. And it must bring forward comprehensive social care reforms that guarantee all care workers at least the real living wage.”
Mr Starmer noted that the pandemic had “quickened the pace” for politicians.
“The challenges we now face mean that even the questions of 2019 already seem like ancient history. What we say at the next general election isn’t written yet. But it will be rooted in Labour values.
“It won’t sound like anything you’ve heard before. It will sound like the future arriving.”