Labour and Tories set to woo working-class voters with new policies

14 May

Labour and the Conservatives will step up their bidding war for working-class voters on Monday with a raft of eye-catching policies on workers’ rights and the NHS, as the general election campaign steps up a gear with just over three weeks to go until polling day.

Jeremy Corbyn will promise to take a million patients off NHS waiting lists by 2020 and Theresa May will unveil what she claims is the biggest extension of workers’ rights by any Conservative government, as the parties compete hard for the backing of what the prime minister calls “ordinary working-class people”.

Corbyn will address an audience of 3,000 nurses on Monday at the annual Royal College of Nursing conference in Liverpool, where he will promise that Labour will spend an extra £37bn over the next parliament on a “new deal” for the NHS.

Labour calculates that would allow the NHS to take a million people off waiting lists by the end of the parliament by guaranteeing access to treatment within 18 weeks, and to guarantee that patients could always be seen in A&E within four hours.

The Labour leader will repeat the party’s pledge to lift the 1% pay cap for public sector workers that has restrained nurses’ wages. He will tell nurses, who voted to ballot for strike action over pay on Sunday: “Imagine what would happen to the NHS if the Conservatives under Theresa May were to have another five years in power. It would be unrecognisable: a national health service in name, cut back, broken up and plundered by private corporations.”

May will spend Monday morning at a workplace in south-east England, where she will announce plans for new statutory rights to carers’ leave, fresh protections for workers suffering mental illness and safeguards against pensions mismanagement.

The pledges are the latest step in the prime minister’s deliberate strategy of rebranding the Tories as the party of working people in a bid to seize seats across a swath of traditional Labour territory.

The Conservatives will also commit to increase the “national living wage” each year in line with average earnings over the course of the next parliament – though that is likely to be significantly less generous than Labour’s pledge to raise the minimum wage, which applies to all workers, not just the over-25s, to £10 an hour.

Many of the proposals are likely to be regarded by the right of her own party as imposing burdensome “red tape” on businesses, but May has openly rejected the laissez-faire approach of David Cameron, urging Conservative members in her party conference speech last October to “put the power of government squarely at the service of ordinary working-class people”.

The Conservatives know some of Labour’s tax-and-spending pledges poll well, after almost a decade of austerity. But they are hammering home the message that Labour’s sums do not add up and are relying on other levers, such as new rules and regulations, to show they are on the public’s side.

Labour’s promised boost to NHS funding includes £10bn for extra capital investment, including in the NHS’s IT systems, which were subject to a damaging cyber-attack on Friday. This would be funded through borrowing, while the rest of the new spending would be paid for by tax increases, including higher income tax for the top 5% of earners.

A Conservative spokesman said: “Jeremy Corbyn can’t deliver any of this because his nonsensical economic policies would damage our economy and mean less money for the NHS, not more.”

As well as announcing new workers’ rights, May will repeat her promise to maintain all of the protections currently underpinned by the EU, which include maternity leave and paid holidays.

However, Frances O’Grady, the general secretary of the TUC, told the Guardian the real test of May’s pledge to govern for working people would be whether she was willing to write such protections into the trade deal Britain signs with the rest of the EU after Brexit.

O’Grady, who represents almost 6 million union members, said the Conservative manifesto should include a clear promise to ensure Brexit was not used as an excuse for a “race to the bottom”. In particular, she would like to see the final Brexit deal that will determine how Britain trades with the EU in future include a promise not to undercut European social standards.

“This is not about sovereignty; this is about saying there will be a level playing field and nobody will fall below this basic standard,” she said.

“Now, of course, Theresa May has already said that she won’t just protect rights, she will enhance them – so it should cause no problem whatsoever for the Conservative party to sign up to a commitment that British workers will not fall behind rights in other countries.”

That idea has already been included in plans for the talks by Brussels’ chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, after lobbying from trade unions. The European council’s negotiating guidelines say of any future trade deal with the UK: “It must ensure a level playing field, notably in terms of competition and state aid, and in this regard encompass safeguards against unfair competitive advantages through, inter alia, tax, social, environmental and regulatory measures and practices.”

The prime minister is expected to promise to enhance protections for workers in the gig economy, whose precarious status has become a focus after a series of investigations, including by the Guardian, revealed that many survive on poverty pay rates and with little or no job security.

However, the Conservative manifesto is not expected to give details of fresh rights, instead promising to await the findings of a review into the 21st-century workplace being carried out by former Tony Blair adviser Matthew Taylor.

O’Grady said, “I don’t think it’s going to be good enough at this stage to talk about reviewing things or developing things. I don’t think that’s going to cut much ice.”

As well as Corbyn, the RCN conference in Liverpool will hear from the Liberal Democrat leader, Tim Farron, who will echo Corbyn’s pledge to lift the ceiling on public sector pay.

The Lib Dems’ Treasury spokesman, Vince Cable, said: “Public-sector workers are facing a double blow at the hands of this Conservative government, with years of pitiful increases to pay combined with a Brexit squeeze caused by soaring inflation. Living standards are falling, prices are rising and nurses are going to food banks – but Theresa May doesn’t care.”

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