‘Covid Rogue’ Among Labour’s Business Backers

Fire, rehire, aspire.

by Polly Smythe

28 May 2024

a man with black greyish hair wearing a suit stands in front of a bright blue sign with the words 'heathrow' on it.
Ex-Heathrow CEO John Holland-Kaye, May 2021. John Sibley/Reuters

The winner of an award for “Covid rogues” is among the 120 business leaders who co-signed a letter backing the Labour party.

On Tuesday, the Times published a letter from 120 business executives endorsing Labour and criticising the Conservative party.

In her first major speech of the election campaign, shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves cited the letter as proof that “across the world of business, Labour is being recognised as the natural partner of business.”

Among the signatories was former CEO of Heathrow and king of fire and rehire John Holland-Kaye.

In 2020, the union Unite bestowed on Holland-Kaye the “Covid-rogue crown” after he fired and rehired over 4,000 airport staff on inferior terms and conditions. As some workers saw their pay slashed by up to £8,000, Holland-Kaye’s shot up from £700,000 to £1.5m.

Unite general secretary Sharon Graham has called on Labour to “immediately distance itself from John Holland-Kaye,” adding that the “Heathrow example is why there must be a total ban on fire and rehire.”

Graham added that Holland-Kaye had “cynically taken advantage of Covid to cut workers’ wages and to boost Heathrow’s long-term profits,” and was responsible for “one of, if not the most brutal example, of fire and rehire during the Covid pandemic.”

Holland-Kaye isn’t the only proponent of fire and rehire to have signed the letter. William Reeve, CEO of letting service firm Goodlord, was also accused of using fire and rehire tactics during the pandemic. In 2021, when staff’s fixed-term contracts expired, Goodlord offered workers new permanent contracts, on a radically reduced pay rate. The contract change took staff annual pay down from £24,000 to £18,000. Workers who refused to sign the new contracts were either immediately dismissed or took industrial action. Those who took industrial action were later dismissed, as Goodlord claimed they had rejected a “range of options” to end the dispute. Len McCluskey, then-Unite general secretary, said: Fire and rehire is ripping through our workplaces like a disease. Weak law lets bad bosses force through brutal changes to contracts, sometimes taking thousands of pounds off wages that families need to get by.”

Back in 2021, Keir Starmer met with Unite reps at Heathrow who were fighting against fire and rehire. “They told me about the devastating impact this awful practice has had on them, their families and communities,” he tweeted at the time. “It has made me even more determined to outlaw fire and rehire.”

Three years and much flirtation with big business later, and the Labour party is now celebrating Holland-Kaye’s and Reeve’s signatures.

Launching her “pro-business, pro-worker” economic strategy this morning, Rachel Reeves said: “A few years ago, you might not have expected to hear those things from the Labour party.

“Think how far we have come under Keir’s leadership, in four short years. If we can bring business back to Labour, then I know we can bring business back to Britain.”

Labour’s shadow business secretary Jonathan Reynolds called the letter an “extraordinary turnaround” and “recognition of how Labour has changed.”

The fact that “so many significant business figures” had signed the letter demonstrated that Labour has “built a coalition of people who want better for the UK, for the British economy,” said Reynolds.

The joint letter said that the Conservatives’ approach to the economy had been “beset by instability, stagnation and a lack of long-term focus,” while “Labour has shown it has changed and wants to work with business to achieve the UK’s full economic potential.”

“We should now give it the chance to change the country and lead Britain into the future. We are in urgent need of a new outlook to break free from the stagnation of the past decade and we hope by taking this public stand we might persuade others of that need too.”

The presence of Holland-Kaye and Reeve as signatories particularly inflammatory, given the current tension over Labour’s wavering commitment to banning fire and rehire.

Despite Jonathan Ashworth’s commitment that Labour will ban fire and rehire, Labour has diluted its stance on the practice. The final version of Labour’s New Deal for Working People, published on Friday, contains the caveat that “businesses can restructure to remain viable, preserve their workforce and the company when there is genuinely no alternative.”

In a statement published by Unite, Sharon Graham said this left the New Deal for Working People with “more holes in it than Swiss cheese,” and that the “number of caveats and get-outs” in the document risked it “becoming a bad bosses’ charter.”

Also likely to cause concern among trade unionists, who’ve long been alarmed at Labour’s increasingly cosy relationship to big business – known internally as the “smoked salmon and scrambled egg offensive” – will be the presence of several lobbying chiefs as signatories to the letter.

Iain Anderson, chairman of lobbying group H/Advisors Cicero, is among the signatories to the letter. The consultancy’s client list contains Barclays, investment fund Blackrock and HP. All three companies have been high-profile targets of the Palestinian civil society-led boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign.

Chairman of consultancy firm SEC Newgate Mark Glover was also a signatory to the letter. His company biography describes him as “a leading expert in understanding the Labour Party”.

Among Glover’s credentials are his role as vice chair of Small Medium-Sized Enterprises for Labour, his 12-year stint as a councillor in Southwark, and his marriage to Johanna Baxter, previously chair of Labour’s NEC and now Labour’s parliamentary candidate in Paisley and Renfrewshire South.

SEC Newgate represents outsourcing company Sodexo, debt-enforcement company CDER Group, chronic sewage spiller Anglian Water and Ballymore, the Irish property developer behind the infamous Nine Elms Sky Pool.

In 2022, Glover held a series of “roundtable discussion dinners” with senior business representatives from outsourcing company Sodexo and shadow business secretary Jonny Reynolds, and “senior Labour officials” to “help clients “develop relationships with senior Labour figures” to help them “position themselves to influence Labour’s policy agenda.”

The founder and managing director of Lowick Group, Kevin McKeever, also signed the letter. Lowick Group’s clients include Notting Hill Genesis, who are responsible for the redevelopment of the Aylesbury estate, as well as the joint owners of Avanti West Coast, First Group.

29/05/24: This piece was updated to include William Reeve, a second business leader accused of using fire and rehire tactics. 

Polly Smythe is Novara Media’s labour movement correspondent.

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