Portside aims to provide varied material of interest to people on the left that will help them to interpret the world, and to change it.
Sisters and brothers, thank you very much for inviting me here today. I must admit it seems to be a very fast journey we are on at the present time and, to me, it is an enormous honour to be invited to address the TUC. It only seems a very short time ago that your General Secretary, Frances O’Grady, did me the honour of coming to speak at the nominating meeting in my constituency, Islington North, and now she has invited me here to address the TUC. I am very grateful, Frances, for what you did there and I am delighted to be here today because I am, and always will be, an active trade unionist. That is in my body.
I have been a trade union member all my life. I was an organiser for the National Union of Public Employees before I became a Member of Parliament. I realise this is deeply controversial because they are now part of Unison but you can only be in one union at a time; you know the problem. That taught me a great deal about people, about values, and about the value of trade unions in the everyday lives of ordinary people. School cleaners, they have a hard time, school meals workers being badly treated, school caretakers looking for some security in their jobs, all those issues that are day-to-day work of trade unions and those that attack and criticise trade unions should remember this. There are six million of us in this country. We are the largest voluntary organisation in Britain. Every day we make a difference in looking after people in their ordinary lives as well as a huge contribution in the wider community. Unions are not just about the workplace, they are also about society as a whole, life as a whole, and the right of the working class to have a voice in society as a whole. That is why trade unionism is so important.
We celebrate the values of solidarity, of compassion, of social justice, fighting for the under-privileged, and of working for people at home and abroad. Whilst we value and protect the rights that we have in this country, the same thing does not apply to trade unionists all over the world. Those people that died in that dreadful fire in China where there was a free market philosophy around the operation of a port, fire-fighters died trying to protect other workers who should have been protected by decent health and safety conditions. All around the world, Colombia and many other places, trade unionists try to survive trying to stand up for their rights.
Trade unions in Britain have achieved a fantastic amount in protection and in the wider society. We need to stand in solidarity with trade unionists all over the world demanding exactly the same things as we have secured for ourselves and trying to defend for ourselves. Trade unionism is a worldwide movement, not just a national movement and we should never be ashamed to say that.
There are those that say trade unions are a thing of the past and the idea of solidarity, unity, and community are a thing of the past. Ever since this Labour leadership election was announced—and I have taken part in it— I have spoken at 99 different events all over Britain, 99 events in 99 days. Those events were often very large. They would bring together people that had been estranged from the Labour movement or indeed from the Labour Party and they would bring together young people who had not been involved in that kind of politics before. What brought them together was a sense of optimism and hope. What brought them together was a sense of the way things can be done better in politics in Britain.
Those values I want restored to the heart of the Labour Party, which was of course itself a creation of the trade unions and socialists in the first place. I have some news to report to you. Ever since last Saturday, large numbers of people have been joining the Labour Party and the last figure I got, that was Saturday afternoon, 30,000 people have become members of the Labour Party. Our membership is now more than a third of a million, and rising. Over half a million people were able to take part in that election.
But the values that people bring to joining the Party and the Party brings to them have to be things that we fight for every single day. I want the unions and the Labour Party to work together to win people over to the basic values we all accept, to change minds, and change politics, so that we can have a Labour government, we can look in a different direction, we can look away from the policy of growing inequality and look to a society that grows in equality, in confidence, in involvement of everybody, and does not allow the gross levels of poverty and inequality to get worse in Britain. That is what the Tories have in store for us.
But Labour must become more inclusive and open, and I have had the very interesting task in the last few days of a number of events and a number of challenges. The first thing I did on being elected was to go and speak at a rally in saying Refugees are Welcome Here because they are victims of human rights abuses and other abuses. I thought it was important to give that message out, that we recognise human rights abuses and the victims of it all over the world from wherever they come, they are human beings just like you and me, we hold out our hands and our hearts to them, and we want to work with them for a safer and better world. They are seeking the same things that we are seeking.
Later, the next day, I also wanted to give a message about how we intend to do things, and the kind of society we want. So, I was very proud to accept an invitation to attend a mental health open day in my constituency, or a nearby constituency, to show that we believe the NHS is vital and valuable as it obviously and absolutely is but there are many people who suffer in silence from mental health conditions, suffer the abuse that often goes with those conditions, and the rest of society passes by on the other side. Mental illness is an illness just like any other, it can be recovered from, but we have to be prepared to spend the time and the resources and end the stigma surrounding mental illness which often comes with stress, workplace stress, poverty, and many other things. There are other messages we have to put and the media has been absolutely full of midnight oil burning sessions in appointments to the new Shadow Cabinet of the Parliamentary Labour Party. After consideration and thought— and lots of discussion— we have assembled and appointed a Shadow Cabinet of a majority of women members for the first time ever in history.
To show how determined we are on a number of specific areas of policy, there is a specific Shadow Minister, Lucianna Berge, who is dealing with mental health issues. She will be at the table along with everyone else, and there is a specific Minister dealing with housing, and that is because I believe that John Healey will put the case very well. The issue is that we have to address the housing crisis that faces so many people all over this country. The free market is not solving the problem of homelessness. The free market is not allowing people to lead reasonable lives when they are paying excessive rents in the private-rented sector. We have to change our housing policies fundamentally by rapidly increasing a council house building programme to give real security to people’s lives.
But there are other issues that we have to address, and that is how we make our party and our movement more democratic. The election process that I have just come through was an electorate of 558,000 people, the largest electorate ever for an internal party election. The number of votes that were cast for me were more than twice the total membership of the Tory Party in the whole country. That is something to savour.
But all those people coming forward to take part in this process came forward, yes, because they were interested, yes, because they were hopeful but, yes, because they wanted to be part of a democratic process where we make policy together. We live in a digital age, we live in an age where communications are much easier and we live in an age where we can put our views to each other in a much quicker and in a much more understandable form. So we don’t need to have policymaking that is top down from an all-seeing, all-knowing leader who decides things. I want everybody to bring their views forward, every union branch, every party branch and every union, so we organically develop the strengths we all have, the ideas we all have, and the imagination we all have.
When we have all had a say in how we develop, say, the housing policy, or, say, the health policy, say any other particular area of environmental protection or anything else, if everyone has been involved in that policymaking, they own the policy that is there at the end. They are more determined to campaign and fight for it. They are more likely to mobilise many more people around it, so we don’t go through until 2020 with a series of surprises, but we go through to 2020 with a series of certainties, that we are a growing, stronger movement; we are more confident and more determined than ever and, above all, we are going to win in 2020 so we see the end of this Tory government.
When politicians get out of touch with reality, they sometimes forget where skillsets really lie. I can give you an example: when I was a union organiser, we used to get involved in negotiations about work-study arrangements, the time it took to drive a van from place A to place B, and how long it took to load the van, all those kind of issues. So we would go in there and start negotiations, and I would always go to the branch meeting before hand and say, “Who here is keen on betting?” Every hand went up, of course. “Who’s the best at betting?” One particular hand would be pointed to, and I would say, “Can you come along to the negotiations?” “Why?” Because that member had brilliant skills at mental arithmetic — this was pre-computer days — and he would work out very quickly, and he would say sotto voce to me, “They are lying to you, Jerry. Don’t accept it”, or whatever. Skills at the workplace, skills of ordinary people, knowledge of ordinary people. The elite in our society look with contempt on people with brilliance and ideas just because they don’t speak like them or look like them. Let’s do things differently and do things together.
Had we had a different approach, we would now have the millstone of private finance initiatives around the necks of so many hospitals and so many schools in this country, or would we; instead, have a more sensible form of public sector borrowing to fund for investment and fund for the future, rather than handing over our public services to hedge funds, which is exactly what this government would like us to do? Be confident, be strong. We have lots of knowledge and lots of power.
I have worked with unions affiliated to the Labour Party and not affiliated to the Labour Party, and I work with all trade unions because I think that is what the Leader of the Labour Party should do. I think the Leader of the Labour Party, if invited, should always be at the TUC. I see it as an organic link.
I want to say a special mention to one group of workers who are here. They are doing their best to defend something we all own, know and love. Welcome to those strikers from PCS from the National Gallery for what they are going through at the present time. They look after our national treasures in the National Gallery. They do it well. They love what they do and they love what we have got in our National Gallery. Please, let’s not privatise our galleries and privatise our staff. We welcome and we recognise the skills of those people who work in all those places and so many other places as being a precious national asset, not something to be traded away on the market of privatisation. Well done to you for your campaign.
Yesterday the Tories put the Second Reading of the Trade Union Bill to Parliament, and, sadly, it achieved its Second Reading and it has now gone into Committee. Basically, they are declaring war on organised labour in this country ever since they won the General Election, albeit with the support of 24% of the electorate. Yesterday, I was proud to sit alongside Angela Eagle on our Front Bench to oppose the Trade Union Bill, and she rightly said, and I quote: “This Bill is a dangerous attack on basic liberties that would not be tolerated by the Conservative Party if they were imposed on any other section of society.” Stephen Doughty gave an excellent reply, and Labour MPs spoke with passion, knowledge, and understanding of the dangers of this Bill. It is quite interesting how the Tories champion deregulation wherever regulation is ever mentioned. How many times have we heard that, Ministers for Deregulation, Departments for Deregulation, Ministers who will tear up all regulations? But one thing they really want to regulate is organised labour and the trade unions in this country. I think that sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, don’t you?
So we have to oppose it and recognise what they are doing. The burdens they are placing, as one Tory MP admitted, are actually the strategy that was used by General Franco in Spain on his control of the trade unions in Spain. They seem to still think that it is right just to attack trade unions because they exist. I am not going to be lectured to by saying, “If the Labour Party gets too close to unions it puts us all on the back foot.” I am sorry. Trade unions are an essential and valuable part of modern Britain. Six million people voluntarily join trade unions and I am proud to be a trade unionist. That is why we are going to fight this Bill all the way. When we have been elected with a majority in 2020, we are going to repeal this Bill and replace it with a workers’ rights agenda and something decent and proper for the future.
Every difficulty actually gives you an opportunity, and the difficulty is that this Bill has been placed in front of us, but it gives us the opportunity to defend civil liberties and traditional freedoms and explain to the wider public, beyond trade union members and others, that it is actually a threat to the liberties of all of us. Because by calling into question the right of free association of trade unions they are actually in contravention, in my view, of Article 11 of the European Convention of Human Rights. They are also in contravention, as Stephen pointed out in his reply yesterday, to the International Labour Organisation conventions. So we are going to continue our opposition to this. They are threatening the right of peaceful protest by looking to criminalise picketing. They are even threatening the right to free speech by seeking to limit what a union member can say on social media during a dispute. Are we really going to have teams of civil servants or lawyers or police or somebody trawling through massive numbers of Twitter messages, Facebook messages, to find something somebody said about their employer or about an industrial dispute? What kind of intrusive society are they really trying to bring about? We have got to fight this Bill all the way, because if they get it through it’s a damage to civil liberties and for everybody in our society. They will use it as a platform to make other attacks on other sections of our community. Let’s be strong about this.
We also have to promote trade unionism and understand that good trade unions, good trade union organisation, yes, it protects people in the workplace, yes, it leads to better pay, better conditions and better salaries and better promotional opportunities as a whole, but it also means there is often better management in those places where unions are very strong. The two things actually go together and are very important. Where unions are weak, job security is weak; conditions get worse and you look at the results of what this Conservative government is doing. They want to raise the threshold on strike ballots, so I would like to ask the Prime Minister this question: if you want trade unions to vote in ballots, why leave unions with the most archaic, expensive, inefficient method of voting you could find? Why not modernise the balloting? Above all, why not go forward and secure workplace balloting ensuring that every member of a trade union can vote securely and secretly at their own workplace? That, surely, is something we all want in this Bill for ourselves.
But they are also attacking the rights of trade unions to be involved in the wider society. The Tories have always been concerned about the right of trade unions to be involved in political actions in any way. Why shouldn’t workers, organised together in a union, express a political view? Why shouldn’t they use their funds, if they wish, on political or public campaigning? We had the Act in the last Parliament that restricted the participation of unions and charities in public commentary during elections. This is taking it a stage even further. They seem quite relaxed about the involvement of hedge funds and funny money in politics. They seem absolutely obsessed with the cleanest money in politics, which is trade union funds being used for political campaigning. So we are going to oppose this Bill with every opportunity we get. We are going to expose it for what it is, and we are going to try and stop it from passing. As I have said, we will try to replace this Bill with something much better.
But there are other issues that we have to remind ourselves about what is going on at the present time. The Welfare Reform Bill is anything but welfare reform. It is all about building on the cuts they have already made, making the lives of the most vulnerable and poorest people in our society even worse. The disability benefits cuts that have been made over the past five years and the availability of the work test have had some disastrous — appalling — consequences where people have even committed suicide and taken their own lives out of a sense of desperation. I simply ask the question: what kind of a society are we living in where we deliberately put regulations through knowing what the effects are going to be on very poor and very vulnerable people who end up committing suicide? And we say it is all part of a normal process. No, it is not!
The reduction in the benefit cap has the effect of socially cleansing many parts of our cities. Owen Smith and I had discussions last night about amendments that we are going to put down to the Welfare Reform Bill. As far as I am concerned, the amendments we are putting forward are to remove the whole idea of the benefit cap altogether. We need to raise wages and regulate rents rather than to have a welfare system that do things, of subsidising high rents and low wages. Surely, we can do things differently and better if we really want to? We will bring down the welfare bill in Britain by controlling rents and boosting wages, not by impoverishing families and the most vulnerable people.
I have to leave straightaway after I have concluded my remarks here because I want to be back in Parliament to vote against their attempt to cut the tax credits that act as a lifeline to millions of people. Barnados say it will take £1,200 per year away from a lone parent of two working full time on the minimum wage. The government says there is no alternative to this. John McDonnell, our new Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, is setting out what the alternatives are. They call us “deficit deniers”, but then they spend billions in cutting taxes for the richest families and for the most profitable businesses. What they are as is “poverty deniers”. They are ignoring the growing queues at food banks; they are ignoring the housing crisis; they are cutting tax credits when child poverty rose by half-a-million under the last government to over four million. Let’s be clear. Austerity is actually a political choice that this government has taken and they are imposing it on the most vulnerable and poorest in our society.
It is our job as Labour to set out a vision for a better society and campaign proudly against Britain’s greatest democratic organisation, the trade union Movement. Our shared vision will be delivered by shared campaigning, a Labour Party proud to campaign for the trade unions and a trade union Movement proud to campaign with Labour. We have a job to do, to understand the process that has been going through in politics in Britain, to understand the levels of inequality that are there, to understand the levels of insecurity of people on zero-hours contracts, students with massive debts and understand the stress and tension that so many people have.
We are actually quite a rich country. We are actually a country that is deeply unequal. Surely, the whole vision of those who founded our unions and founded our political parties was about doing things differently. That generation, those brilliant people brought us the right to vote, got women the right to vote, brought us the National Health Service and brought us so many other things. We build on that in the way we do our policy, we build on that in the way we develop our movement, and we build on that in the way that we inspire people to come together for a better, more decent, more equal, fairer and more just society. These things are not dreams. These things are practical realities that we, together, intend to achieve. Thank you very much