Labour will not be able “turn the taps on from day one” on public spending if it wins the next election, the new leader of the TUC has acknowledged, suggesting the party’s attempts to manage expectations are working.
The incoming general secretary, Paul Nowak, said a Labour government would not be able to fix the Conservatives’ “neglect” straight after coming to power but suggested it could still “set a very clear direction of travel” for public services.
It follows Keir Starmer’s warning in his conference speech that although he would “love to stand here and say Labour will fix everything” that was wrong with the country, so much damage had been done to the economy that a recovery would take time, in what was interpreted as a message to the unions not to expect immediate radical change should the party win power.
In an interview with the Guardian, Nowak acknowledged: “Who knows what economic mess Labour is going to inherit. It’s not going to be able to turn the taps on from day one. It’s not going to be able to fix our public services.
“What you can’t fix is 12 or 13 years of neglect on day one but you can set a very clear direction of travel. No one believes that you can fix our NHS, fix our schools, fix our civil service on day one of a Labour government because you’re undoing years of neglect … But you can certainly begin to do things that would give confidence.”
Nowak was cautiously supportive of Labour’s position “in the round” on industrial action after some unions criticised Starmer over his reluctance to overtly back striking workers, instead focusing on laying the blame on the Tories for walkouts.
“I obviously want any political party, when workers take that very difficult decision to take industrial action, to understand why they’re doing that and support them. But I recognise that Keir’s job is different to my job,” he said.
He highlighted the party’s commitment to measures including repealing anti-strike legislation and bringing in a “new deal” for workers in the first 100 days of a Labour government, but he added: “Does that mean we’re going to agree on every issue? Absolutely not.”
Sharon Graham, the general secretary of Unite, has been particularly outspoken in her criticism of Starmer’s Labour. Nowak, however, said: “Where me and Sharon would be absolutely aligned is that sense that we need political change in this country and that Labour is our best chance of that political change.
“The idea that we have another term of Conservative government, after what it’s done to our public services and what it’s done to the jobs of our members, that’s not a vision that any of us would sign up to.”
He employers recognised that the “political wind is changing” and that it could, therefore, be more difficult politically for Rishi Sunak to get his anti-strike legislation through parliament.
“When we’re in the midst of this cost of living crisis, with the pressures on the UK economy, to spend precious parliamentary time taking another kick at unions, rather than trying to resolve underlying issues, just seems absolutely ludicrous,” he said.
“The government will pay a political price for it because I think there will be a lot of ordinary people looking at it saying, hang on, this just doesn’t seem right.”