Frances O'Grady's speech to the TUC conference: full text

The TUC general secretary says that "before he starts lecturing unions about transparency, the Prime Minister should take a long hard look in the mirror".

“Frances O'Grady, TUC, giving my first speech as General Secretary.

“And after seeing that film, ever more determined that our movement should help build a stronger, fairer Britain.

“We are now just 18 months away from a General Election. And the choice that the British people make could shape the kind of country we live in for generations.

“If we’ve learned anything since the financial crash, then it’s this: politics is too important to be left to the politicians.

“People don’t need us to tell them how tough life is for them.

“They want to hear the alternative. They want hope. And they want action.

“It was five years ago this month, Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy in New York, citing debt of over 600 billion dollars.

“A price tag on obscene greed and monumental stupidity that sent shock waves around the world.

“But the roots of the crash go deeper still – more than three decades to the election of Margaret Thatcher’s government.

“When the Right set out to break the post-war consensus.

“Once, it seemed everyone agreed that the State should provide decent public services and social security as a human shield against boom-bust capitalism.

“Everyone saw the value of a mixed economy that put the brakes on private monopolies and guaranteed a public realm.

“But no longer.

“What followed became the articles of a new economic faith.

“A fire-sale of public assets. Deregulation of the City. Weaker worker rights.

“And trade unions, once respected across the political spectrum for our role in fighting fascism and as a pillar of any free and democratic society, now treated with disdain.

“The values of a mythical middle England came to dominate, stretching the United Kingdom to breaking point.

“The City and the new kids on the block – private equity, hedge funds and share traders – increasingly called the shots.

“And they unleashed an escalation of greed and inequality that ultimately led to the financial crash.

“Creating a new Anglo-American model that was a kind of capitalism on crack cocaine.

“A legacy we’re living with today.

“But it hasn’t always been like this.

“Whatever happened to the Conservative Party that, over 100 years ago, backed Winston Churchill’s proposal for tripartite wages councils, so that every worker would be guaranteed a living wage?

“Whatever happened to the Conservative Party of John Major who at least felt obliged to promise voters a ‘Classless Society’?

“And whatever happened to the Conservative Party of Theresa May who once warned against becoming the Nasty Party.

“But who, just this summer, sent government funded vans onto the streets of multiracial London brandishing a slogan last used by the National Front?

“This Government seems intent on dividing Britain, Thatcher-style.

“Between those in work and those out of it.

“Between the tax top rate payers and everyone else.

“Between the metropolitan elite, with their country retreats in Chipping Norton, and the so-called desolate North.

“Governments may have had no choice about bailing out the banks.

“But they have got a political choice about what went wrong, and about where we go next.

“After all, the rest of continental Europe did not deliberately de-industrialise and make a fetish of financial services in the way that 1980s Britain did.

“And today, while workers in many countries have also seen their living standards fall, they have not taken the same hit we have, and trade unionism is not vilified in the same way.

“Even from the European engine room of austerity, the German Chancellor still defends co-determination.

“And her finance minister has called on business to meet union wage demands as a way to boost consumer demand.

“Here in the UK, more thoughtful Conservatives are nervous that this war on working people will lose votes.

“They admit that the Conservatives are seen as the party of the privileged.

“They worry that attacks on the unions of ordinary decent working men and women look high handed, cold-hearted and out of touch.

“To paraphrase Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady, why can’t David Cameron be more like Angela Merkel?

“But instead of listening to his moderates, and perhaps against his own better judgement, the Prime Minister is in hock to those who demand an ever more uncompromising stance.

“Plenty of ugly talk about a crackdown on migrants. But no crackdown on those bosses who use cheap labour to cut costs.

“Tough on welfare fraud for sure. But no sympathy for those unlucky enough to fall on hard times or lose their job.

“Freedom to raise prices for big business. But no pay rise for ordinary working families.

Decent families up and down the land; facing worries that the Eton educated elite, with their serial holidays, hired help and inherited millions, simply haven’t got a clue about.

“And beyond the rhetoric, what has this government actually done to recover and rebalance Britain’s economy?

“Invest for the future in greening Britain’s infrastructure? No. Leave the banks alone and slash state capital investment by £22bn.

“Back Britain’s advanced manufacturing base? No. Hand out government contracts to the cheapest bidder regardless of the cost to local business and jobs.

“Build affordable housing? No. Launch a lending scheme that risks the very same perfect storm that got us into the mess in the first place. And then slap on a cruel bedroom tax.

“The government is rehearsing the same old arguments, repeating the same old mistakes, rehashing the same old bust model of an economy built on sand.

“I know Conservatives are fond of referring to PR man Lynton Crosby as their very own Wizard of Oz. But what does that make Cameron, Osborne and Clegg?

“When it comes to any vision for a new economy, they are the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion:

“No brain, no heart and no courage.

“In many ways it is a testimony to the enduring strength our trade union values of care, compassion and fairness that the Right has chosen to put us in the firing line.

“It explains why this week they are debating a Lobbying Bill that, far from dealing with the real dirt in politics, is designed to deny us a political voice.

“Now, debating the internal arrangements of the Labour Party and the role of its affiliated unions is not the business of Westminster, nor, indeed, of this Congress.

“And in the hall today we also have unions who are just as proud of their party political independence.

“But one thing is for sure.

“We are united in defending the basic democratic principle that ordinary people have the right to a political voice.

“That union money – the few pence freely given every week, by nurses, shop workers and truck drivers – is the cleanest cash in politics today.

“And that whether unions set up a political fund is a matter for members, not ministers.

“Because for too long, politics has been controlled by those who already have far too much money and far too much power.

“Half of the Conservative Party’s funding comes from the City.

“One third of their new intake of MPs are drawn from the banking industry alone.

“And we know what happens when the super-rich get to run the tax system.

“In contrast, unions are Britain’s biggest democratic membership movement of ordinary people.

“We are already required by law to report our membership records every year.

“We have more than ten times the membership of all of Britain’s political parties put together.

“It may even be more.

“The truth is, we simply don’t know.

“Because political parties don’t have to account for their members, in the way that we have to account for ours.

“In fact, the Conservative Party refuses point blank to say how many members it has.

“But, I’m pretty sure that David Cameron has fewer members than our very own Sally Hunt or Mike Clancy. And maybe even Bob Crow.

“So before he starts lecturing unions about transparency, the Prime Minister should take a long hard look in the mirror.

“We already publish our numbers.

“I challenge David Cameron to publish his.

“But more than all this.

“And here is the democratic bottom line.

“If unions were denied a political voice:

“We wouldn’t have had the 1944 Education Act; we wouldn’t have the NHS; we wouldn’t have equal pay for women; we wouldn’t have a minimum wage.

“And remember who first exposed the scandal of tax avoidance?

“Who first raised the alarm about falling living standards?

“And who first blew the whistle on zero-hours?

“You can see why some people want to shut us up.

“That is why we must now stand up for our rights.

“Not just union rights.

“Civil rights.

“People’s rights.

“The government has attacked the union link to Labour.

“A link that, of course, will evolve and change over time.

“But their real aim is to discredit all unions.

“And the reason is clear: we stand for popular policies to shift wealth and power from the few to the many.

“So if they can’t win the policy argument, then attack them as ‘trade union demands’.

“If they don't like what we say, call us ‘union paymasters’.

“And if all else fails, then try the old trick of smears.

“The government may be preparing for a humiliating climb down on some of the worst parts of the lobbying bill.

“But don’t be fooled into thinking the battle for civil liberties has been won.

“Unions still will be hit by cuts in funding limits.

“Many charities could still find themselves clobbered.

“And, shockingly, one thing is sure, this Bill will virtually close down Hope not Hate and Unite Against Fascism in what amounts to a free gift to the BNP.

“This government should be ashamed of themselves.

“Congress, this is an anti-democratic, dangerous bill, and it must be defeated.

“But delegates I also need to issue a challenge to the cynics within our own ranks too.

“We’ve all heard those who tell us that the next election does not matter.

“You don’t have to go far to hear people say there’s no difference between the parties, it doesn’t matter who wins, they’re all in it for themselves.

“I respect their right to an opinion but I must tell you they are wrong.

“The result of the next election does matter. It matters a lot.

“To the unemployed teenager, desperate for a decent job.

“To the young family, hoping for a decent home.

“And to the elderly, the disabled and their carers, who know there must be a better way.

“For trade unionists to argue that voting is a waste of time is a dangerous game that plays into the hands of our opponents.

“Because ever since the Chartists first lifted their banners, the democratic voice of the people has always been our best weapon against rule by the markets, the rich and the powerful.

“To deny that would be a betrayal of the millions of our members whose jobs, living standards and pay depends on it.

“I am not arguing that we should button up and keep quiet in the run up to the election.

“Nor that we should be put up with a vanilla version of austerity.

“On the contrary.

“But it does mean that we have to roll up our sleeves and help shape the choices on offer.

“We need to win public opinion to our policies.

“And we need to prove that they are election winners.

“Remember when we first campaigned for a minimum wage?

“The business lobby said it would wreck the economy and politicians trembled. Now it’s as much part of the mainstream British culture as curry and chips.

“It’s time for us to push the same kind of ambitious policies – to transform our economy, improve working lives and change the country for the better.

“A popular programme that can inspire voter confidence.

“A test of both values and valour.

“I’m going to tell you what should go on a pledge card.

“And, today, I challenge politicians from all parties to say where they stand on it.

“First, decent jobs.

“It’s time to restore that goal of full employment, and give a cast iron jobs guarantee for the young.

“Full employment is the best way to boost the economy, drive up living standards and generate the tax that we need to pay down the deficit.

“And let’s be clear, the reason why low-paid jobs are growing is because people have no choice but to take them.

“That is wrong.

“Employers should compete for staff. Not the other way around.

“Now, George Osborne will say – but how are you going to pay for it?

“Well, of course the best way to pay for it is by getting economic growth. That’s why we need to invest in an intelligent industrial strategy for the future.

“But if the Chancellor wants to talk numbers here’s a big one.

“According to the Rich List, since the crash, the 1,000 richest people in Britain increased their wealth by no less than £190b.

“That’s nearly double the entire budget for the NHS.

“So when they ask how we’ll pay for it, let’s tell them. Fair taxes – that’s how.

“One of the best ways to create jobs and apprenticeships would be to build new houses. And that’s pledge number two.

“One million new council and affordable homes.

“Our country has a desperate shortage of housing. That means landlords rake it in and the housing benefit bill rockets. It drives up the cost of a buying a home, and puts people in more debt.

“So cut the waiting lists, stop another bubble and let's build the homes young families need.

“Pledge number three: fair pay – and new wages councils to back it up.

“Of course the national minimum wage should go up and we need tough enforcement.

“But take one look at company profits and you’ll see that there are plenty of industries that could, and should, pay more.

“That’s why we need new wages councils, so unions and employers get around the table and negotiate.

“That’s the way to guarantee not just a minimum wage, not just a living wage but a fair wage, and fair shares of the wealth workers help create.

“And pledge number four could be the most popular one of all.

“Let’s pledge that the NHS will once again be a public service run for people and not for profit.

“Let’s make adult social care a community responsibility by bringing it together with the NHS.

“That would save money because good social care helps elderly people stay at home when they want to be, instead of in hospital when they don't.

“And while we’re about it, let’s have a proper system of care for our children too.

“So instead of shrinking the welfare state, let’s strengthen it.

“That’s the way to build a stronger economy too.

“And five – fair rights at work.

“No more union busting. No more blacklisting. And no more zero hours.

“Instead we need decent employment rights; strong unions with the freedom to organise, and a bit more economic democracy.

“We already work with the best employers, keeping workers healthy and safe, giving them the chance to learn new skills, guaranteeing fair pay and fair treatment.

“Through the worst of the recession, we made thousands of agreements to save jobs and keep plants open.

“And let me say this, I believe there isn’t a boardroom in Britain that wouldn’t benefit from giving ordinary workers a voice.

“Of course these aren’t the only issues on which we campaign.

“We oppose the creeping privatisation of our education system.

We want our railways returned to public ownership.

“And let’s send a strong message from this Congress – we will fight this latest senseless, sell-off of the family silver – hands off our Royal Mail.

“We’ve got sensible policies. Good policies. Popular policies.

“And their importance is that, together, they make a promise of a better future.

“They cut through the pessimism, and give people confidence.

“So I want to end not just by asking Congress to back the General Council statement that I move today.

“But more importantly: To unite. To organise. And to campaign.

“As the late, great poet Seamus Heaney, wrote:

‘Move lips, move minds and let new meanings flare’.

“For the people we saw on that film.

“For a new economy that puts the interests of working people at its heart.

“For our values of equality, solidarity and democracy.

“So that, together, we build a Britain of which we can be proud.”

Frances O'Grady made her first speech to the TUC as general secretary today in Bournemouth.
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How the Brexit referendum has infantilised British politics

Politicians like Boris are not characters in a fantasy show. If they aspire to high office then they must be held to high standards. 

Ancient Greece is the cradle of modern Europe.  From its primordial soup emerged so much of our culture, our language and our politics. Of the three, it seems to be the politics that has made the least progress over the centuries. In fact, if you dropped an Athenian into the middle of politics in the UK today, they would find themselves right at home. This is not because of the direct democracy, the demagogues or the xenophobia, though all are worryingly familiar, but because of the style of the debate itself.

To understand politics in ancient Greece you have to grasp that they had no concept of ‘the truth’. This is not to say that they were liars, simply that the framework by which we judge credibility was not one they would have recognised. The myths and legends that dominated their discourse were neither thought of as being ‘true’ or ‘made-up’, they simply were, and the fact of their being known allowed them to be used as reference points for debate and argument.

Modern politics seems to be sliding back towards this infant state, and nothing embodies this more than the childish slanging match that passes for an EU referendum debate. In the past six years the UK has had three great exercises of direct democracy and it is safe to say none of the campaigns have added a great deal to sum of human enlightenment. Who remembers the claims that babies would die as a result of the special voting machines needed to conduct AV elections? But the EU referendum has taken this to new extremes. The In campaign are executing what is a fairly predictable strategy, the kind of thing that is normal fare in politics these days. Dossiers of doomsday scenarios. Experts wheeled out. Statistics embellished to dazzle the public. One can question the exact accuracy, but at least you feel they operate within certain parameters of veracity.

What is happening on the Out side, in contrast, is the collective nervous breakdown of a large section of the political establishment. Just this week we have had Penny Mordaunt, a government minister, flat-out denying the UK’s right to veto new accessions to the EU. We have seen the fiercely independent Institute for Fiscal Studies denounced as a propaganda arm for Brussels. Most bizarrely, Boris Johnson even tried to claim that the EU had banned bananas from being sold in bunches larger than three, something that nobody who has actually visited a shop in the UK could possibly believe. These kind of claims stretch our political discourse way beyond the crudely drawn boundaries of factual accuracy that normally constrain what politicians can do and say. Surely the people peddling these myths can never be taken seriously again?

But they will. You just watch as Johnson, Mordaunt and the rest slide effortlessly back into public life. Instead of being ridiculed for their unhinged statements, they will be rewarded with plush offices and ministerial cars. Journalists will continue to hang on every word they say. Their views will be published in newspapers, their faces will flit ceaselessly across our TV screens. Johnson is even touted as a plausible future leader of our country, possibly before the year is out. A man who over his meandering career seems to have held every possible opinion on any topic you care to name. Or rather, perhaps it is more accurate to say that the character we call Boris has no opinions at all, simply interests. The public, who have scant regard for a political class they believe to be untrustworthy, seem to have taken a shine to a man who is perhaps the most fundamentally dishonest of Westminster’s denizens.

What does all this say about the state of our politics? If it is true that we are seeing the advent of ‘post-truth’ politics, as some have argued, then it has grown out of the corrosive relationship between politicians and the public. It is both a great irony and a great tragedy that the very fact that people distrust all politicians is what has permitted the most opportunistic to peddle more and more outlandish claims. Political discourse has ceased to be a rational debate with agreed parameters and, like the ancient Greeks, more resembles a series of competing myths. Claims are assessed not by their accuracy but by their place in the grand narrative which is politics.

But the truth matters. For the ancients it was the historian Thucydides who shifted the dial decisively in favour of fact over fiction. In writing his Histories he decided that he wanted to know what actually happened, not just what made a good story. In a similar vein British politics needs to take a step back towards the real world. Broadcasters launching fact-checkers are a good start, but we need to up the level of scrutiny on political claims and those who make them. At times it feels like the press operate as a kind of counterweight to Game of Thrones author George RR Martin, going easy on much-loved characters for fear of upsetting the viewers.

But politicians like Boris are not characters in a fantasy show. If they aspire to high office then they must be held to high standards. If politics is the art of the possible, then political discourse is the art of saying what you can get away with. Until there are consequences for the worst offenders, the age of post-truth politics will continue suck the life from our public debate.