Forcing people to return to offices is wrongheaded, says Starmer

Labour leader tells Guardian flexible working is one of few good things to have come out of pandemic

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Last modified on Thu 12 Aug 2021 12.16 EDT

Ministers, civil service leaders and employers are “wrongheaded” to be trying to make people come back to the office against their will, and should not be standing in the way of progress around working from home, Keir Starmer has said.

Speaking to the Guardian, the Labour leader said it was wrong for people to be forced back into offices when it was the government that had asked them to work from home in the first place, especially if they were being threatened with pay cuts or the loss of London weighting from their salaries.

He said that this “misses a deeper understanding of what the pandemic has done to change our society”, as the move to more flexibility had been one of the few good things to have come out of the last 18 months.

“I just think it’s wrongheaded,” he said. “People were asked to work at home. And they did, and they worked very hard. The idea now that people are being threatened, if they don’t come in when there’s no good reason – it’s wrong.”

He said it had been learned in the pandemic that “there are many jobs where you can do them at home and people work very well and hard from home, we’ve absolutely destroyed the myth of people working at home [are] not really working”.

Starmer also said it was “a bit rich” of Boris Johnson to encourage people to get back to the office when he has been known to sometimes work from his grace-and-favour country home at Chequers.

With Labour promising people a “right to flexible working”, the party leader urged employers and the government to think again about the benefits of allowing people to work from home, saying: “Don’t stand in the way of that change. Actually embrace it, and put a framework around it.”

The government has said employers should plan for employees to return to the office in a gradual way, but ministers have periodically made interventions saying people should be encouraged to get back to their old desks.

Some Whitehall departments have examined whether London weighting could be removed from the pay packets of civil servants who refuse to return to working from their offices. Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, has suggested that it is important for young people to get back to the office if they want to get on in the workplace.

In a wide-ranging interview while visiting a hospital in Stroud and a military museum and youth project in Gloucester, Starmer also said:

Vaccine passports are “almost inevitable” for travel, probably for mass events and possibly for optional venues such as nightclubs, as long as they are accompanied by testing. Starmer had previously suggested they were against “British instinct”. But he said there was a “world of difference between the rules in play for a nightclub, and [essential services] people need to access”, such as doctors’ surgeries, mental health services or food shops, which should not be subject to vaccine passports.

Jeremy Corbyn will not be allowed back into the parliamentary party without giving an apology over the issue of antisemitism in Labour, taking a Facebook post down and working with the leadership on antisemitism. Corbyn had the whip suspended in October 2020 over the Facebook post, which said the scale of antisemitism within Labour was “dramatically overstated for political reasons by our opponents inside and outside the party” – a statement that remains online.

He shares the concern of people about the cost of green boilers and electric cars, so the government must work to bring down the costs, because most people want to do the right thing by the environment “if they can afford to do so”.

Starmer said the pandemic had hindered the first 18 months of his leadership, although he stressed that this was nothing compared with the loss of life and illness and the tough frontline jobs that people have endured.

He said it had “constrained the space for discussion and ideas and political debate” when the emphasis had been about Covid, as well as physically stopping him getting out and about to talk to people.

But he said the country was now at a “fork in the road moment” and he was ready for a new phase of his leadership that would concentrate on “building a better Britain coming out of the pandemic” and tackling the climate crisis. He said those were the “burning issues for me, burning issues for our party and burning issues for the country”.

Starmer said the polls had been in Johnson’s favour in the last 18 months because people had “gravitated towards the government” during the pandemic as it was responsible for keeping people safe. But he said he believed that would start to shift when people looked at the widening inequality in education, the underfunding of the NHS and “the fact that in a time of national crisis, contracts were handed out to mates [of ministers]”.

Asked whether his leadership could be a two-term project to turn Labour’s fortunes around if the party loses the next election, Starmer said: “We are going to the top of the mountain and we are going to fight that next general election and we are going to win it.”

Starmer laid down firm conditions for the circumstances in which Corbyn would be able to get the party whip back.

Asked if the parliamentary party would be stronger with Corbyn back in it, he said: “The situation we’re in with Jeremy is of Jeremy’s making. He chose to respond to the Equality and Human Rights Commission in the way that he did. It is now clear what needs to happen: a clear, unequivocal apology, taking the post down and working with us on antisemitism.

“So it’s a matter between Jeremy and the chief whip, but it’s not about whether it’s making the Labour party stronger, it’s about how we deal with antisemitism. And I was very clear when I took over the Labour party that I was going to root out antisemitism in our party, and I’m determined to do that.”

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