Prospect advocates for members and key industries at Labour conference

13 October 2023

Prospect has been showcasing the work of its members and advocating for them and the industries they work in at this week’s annual Labour Party Conference in Liverpool.

Prospect is an independent trade union but seeks to influence policy across political parties and government to ensure the voice of our members is represented.

Senior representatives and officers from Prospect spoke on a range of panels at Labour Party Conference this year, shining a spotlight on key sectors and policy areas for our members:

(Click on each heading to jump straight to that section)

A new deal for the self-employed

Opening Prospect’s programme of events on Sunday was an event with our Bectu sector, alongside Shadow Minister for the New Deal for Working People, Imran Hussain MP, on improving rights for self-employed workers.

In a panel discussion examining the recent joint report by Prospect, The Fabian Society and Community union, our panellist Andrew Pakes highlighted how freelance workers are “too often the first to suffer and the hardest hit” in periods of economic turmoil. He noted the impact the recent industrial disputes in the US have had on those working in the British film and TV production industry and pledged to stand side-by-side with our freelance members.

Bectu sector member Dean Webster also joined the panel, focusing his comments on challenges workers face in the industry – including long hours, discrimination, bullying and harassment – and how the nature of the market can see people left on their own. Unions, he said, have a crucial ole to play in providing self-employed workers with a voice and an advocate.

Imran Hussain MP spoke about Labour’s plans to restore trade union rights by repealing the Trade Union Act 2016 and the more recent Minimum Service Levels legislation, and the party’s policies to improve invoice payment and health and safety for the self-employed.

Unions and industry working together to deliver good, green British jobs

On Monday, Prospect was a leading voice on the energy sector at a range of panel discussions throughout the day. Our flagship event was co-hosted with Orsted and SERA (Labour’s Environment Campaign), where Senior Deputy General Secretary, Sue Ferns, spoke with Orsted’s Head of UK, Duncan Clark, and Shadow Minister for Industry and Decarbonisation, Sarah Jones MP, about how unions and industry can work together to deliver good, green British jobs.

Speaking to an audience of around 100 policy professionals, politicos, delegates and journalists, Sue shared the findings of recent focus groups Prospect undertook with More in Common, which found that champions of clean energy jobs need to stress that they are good jobs first and foremost. Prospect’s relationship with Orsted, she said, was an example of good practice in the renewables industry – and one that other employers could learn from.

Sue argued that Labour’s proposed publicly-owned clean energy company – Great British Energy – must have an explicit mandate to create good jobs, and cited Labour’s proposals to give unions improved access to workplaces as an opportunity to drive up standards across the renewables sector.

Duncan Clark set out Orsted’s ambition to work with government and unions to create thousands of good green jobs and stressed the importance of bringing together politicians at all levels – local, regional and national – to deliver these jobs.

Sarah Jones MP highlighted important of community benefit for clean power projects – local people deriving benefit from infrastructure being built in their area. Delivering good green jobs critical to “giving Britain its future back”. British Jobs Bonus – capital grants for green tech developers – to incentivise placing in areas with a history of carbon intensive industries to ensure a just transition.

Questions from the standing-room only audience focused on plugging skills gaps, the recent offshore wind auction, and how the UK can respond to the Biden administration’s Inflation Reduction Act.

Technology in the workplace: threat or opportunity

Kicking off Tuesday morning was a look at the advancement of technology in the workplace. Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury Darren Jones MP described tech as “inherent to all [Labour’s] missions” and a key part of his party’s industrial strategy. Darren also spoke of the importance of getting the basics right when it comes to tech enabling public service innovation, such as having interoperable hardware and software across government, procured in a co-ordinated manner.

Prospect’s Andrew Pakes’ comments focused on the need to have worker voice at the heart of industry discussions of AI. He described Prospect as a “tech optimist union”, highlighting the potential for it to transform the way we work – but called on business and government to work in partnership with unions to maximise the benefits and minimise the risks of technological advancement. We must, he said, create a “common shared goal of creating better work for everyone”.

Concurring with Andrew, the Institute for the Future of Work’s Anna Thomas argued that it was important to think about “how tech can augment human capabilities, not just displace them”.

Neil Ross of TechUK shared recent research findings showing that AI is already making junior staff more productive by cutting down on administrative tasks, and said that its role is “only going to grow over time and deliver higher wages and greater productivity” – but urged business to “ensure workers trust it” in order to ensure effective adoption of the technology.

In the ensuing discussion, Darren spoke of his experience chairing the House of Commons’ Business and Trade Committee, noting that whilst employers frequently highlighted new tech they’d implemented, they often got a “hard time” from him when they’d not involved workers in implementation. He said “if you’d involved workers and unions from the start… the whole thing would just be more productive”.

Andrew said that the “just transition” approach being used for the energy sector’s move towards decarbonisation also needed to be adopted for jobs that will change and be augmented by the adoption of new digital technologies in the workplace.

Audience members asked questions on the application of health and safety law to tech at work, and the need for the Health and Safety Executive to have specialist staff to deal with this tech.

What should Keir Starmer’s centre of government look like?

Sitting down just after Keir Starmer’s flagship conference speech on Tuesday, General Secretary Mike Clancy joined the Institute for Government to explore what Keir Starmer’s centre of government should look like.

Economist Ian Mulheirn, who sits on the IfG’s Commission on the Centre of Government, set the scene for a hundred-strong audience: the tax and spend challenges an incoming government will face mean that the centre will be more important than ever. Giving a brief history of the role of Number 10, Ian told the audience that the size of Downing Street had waxed and waned over time, and that this lack of defined structure and capacity contributes to a short-termist approach that cannot differentiate the urgent from the important.

Journalist Sonia Sodha agreed, noting both parties were seeking to talk about the problem of short-termism, with Labour referring to ending “sticking-plaster politics” and the Conservatives choosing “long-term decisions for a brighter future” as their conference slogan. Whilst Labour has set out real long-term plans on energy, housing and planning, Sonia argued, the electoral cycle can still make short-term decision-making appealing – as well as the Treasury’s time horizons for returns on investment.

The role of the Treasury was also touched on by the IfG’s Alex Thomas, who argued that Number 10 needs its own economic capability to provide balance against the Treasury being all-powerful. The relationship between the two buildings, he said, has often swung from being too close to too unaligned, and that a balance must be struck between having a Treasury that can say “no” and a Number 10 strong enough to set priorities. Prime Ministers should think about their legacies and allocate their time accordingly, Alex argued: they need to be able to invest their time in what really matters and move away from the day-to-day.

Mike’s contributions focused on “who” should be at the centre of government, arguing that Starmer’s address had echoes of Wilson’s “white heat of technology” speech, with significant infrastructure commitments – especially in energy. Delivering on those pledges and adopting a long-term, outcome-focused approach requires more specialists, data scientists and STEM experts both in departments and at the centre of government, Mike said.

He pointed out the difficulties the Civil Service is facing in recruiting and retaining these experts, citing pay and morale crises caused by real-terms pay cuts and attacks on civil servants by government ministers. Describing the pay process as “broken beyond repair”, Mike called for a pay process that can “attract skills from the private sector”, saying that “intelligent government” requires “an equal footing with the private sector”.

Questions from the audience focused on learning from moments of crisis, obsessions with structural reform, and the role of the Cabinet Office in coordinating the work of government.

Closing the panel, Mike declared that “industrial strategy is back on the agenda” and said that making a success of it will require the Civil Service to be organised to meet the needs of the industrial strategy – not the other way around. Government, industry and unions, he argued, will need to work together to turn the plans into reality.

Safe Nuclear, a Just Transition and upgrading the Grid

Beyond the events Prospect led with industrial and union partners, the union’s expertise was sought across a wide range of policy discussions – particularly those relating to the energy sector.

Sue Ferns spoke on behalf of the nuclear trade unions at an event organised by Trade Unions for Safe Nuclear energy (TUSNE). She emphasised the need to deliver good clean energy jobs, including by taking a much more strategic approach to improving skills so that the sector can recruit its future workforce.

She also called for much greater ambition for the sector beyond the currently committed to projects at Hinkley Point and Sizewell, as part of a proper industrial strategy for the sector. Associate Director at IPPR, Sam Alvis, talked about the need for great flexibility, giving the example of Microsoft who have signed a deal in the USA for direct connection to a nuclear power station for their data centres.

In a discussion on how to achieve a fair and just transition away from oil and gas in the North Sea, Prospect’s National Secretary for Scotland and Ireland Richard Hardy set out the importance of not repeating the mistakes of previous industrial transitions. Workers, communities, and those least able to pay, he argued, must not carry can for costs associated with decarbonising our economy. Alan Whitehead MP, Shadow Minister for Energy Security, concurred with Richard, telling the audience that the transition must be planned in a way that does not leave oil and gas workers stranded without work.

Sue also spoke on a panel hosted by the National Grid and Green Alliance, The Great Grid Upgrade: Enabling a Secure, Affordable and Clean Energy Future alongside Shadow Minister for Industry and Decarbonisation Sarah Jones MP. Sue set out the vital importance of upgrading the grid to deliver clean energy in the UK and the need to ensure investment in skills and people as well as physical infrastructure. Sarah framed her comments around Labour’s mission of “giving Britain its future back” and the criticality of transitioning the grid to achieving that.