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.
Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The DUP scored £1bn for just ten votes – so why be optimistic about our EU deal?

By March 2019, we’re supposed to have renegotiated 40 years of laws and treaties with 27 ­countries.

If Theresa May’s government negotiates with the European Union as well as it negotiated with the Democratic Unionist Party, it’s time to cross your fingers and desperately hope you have a secret ­Italian grandfather. After all, you’ll be wanting another passport when all this is over.

The Northern Irish party has played an absolute blinder, securing not only £1bn in extra funding for the region, but ensuring that the cash is handed over even if the power-sharing agreement or its Westminster confidence-and-supply arrangement fails.

At one point during the negotiations, the DUP turned their phones off for 36 hours. (Who in Westminster knew it was physically possible for a human being to do this?) Soon after, needling briefings emerged in the media that they were also talking to Labour and the Lib Dems. In the end, they’ve secured a deal where they support the government and get the Short money available only to opposition parties. I’m surprised Arlene Foster didn’t ask for a few of the nicer chairs in Downing Street on her way out.

How did this happen? When I talked to Sam McBride of the Belfast News Letter for a BBC radio programme days before the pact was announced, he pointed out that the DUP are far more used to this kind of rough and tumble than the Conservatives. Northern Irish politics is defined by deal-making, and the DUP need no reminder of what can happen to minnows in a multiparty system if they don’t convince their voters of their effectiveness.

On 8 June, the DUP and Sinn Fein squeezed out Northern Ireland’s smaller parties, such as the SDLP and the Alliance, from the region’s Westminster seats. (McBride also speculated on the possibility of trouble ahead for Sinn Fein, which ran its campaign on the premise that “abstentionism works”. What happens if an unpopular Commons vote passes that could have been defeated by its seven MPs?)

The DUP’s involvement in passing government bills, and the price the party has extracted for doing so, are truly transformative to British politics – not least for the public discussion about austerity. That turns out to be, as we suspected all along, a political rather than an economic choice. As such, it becomes much harder to defend.

Even worse for the government, southern Europe is no longer a basket case it can point to when it wants to scare us away from borrowing more. The structural problems of the eurozone haven’t gone away, but they have receded to the point where domestic voters won’t see them as a cautionary tale.

It is notable that the Conservatives barely bothered to defend their economic record during the election campaign, preferring to focus on Jeremy Corbyn’s spending plans. In doing so, they forgot that many of those who voted Leave last year – and who were confidently expected to “come home” to the Conservatives – did so because they wanted £350m a week for the NHS. The Tories dropped the Cameron-era argument of a “long-term economic plan” that necessitated short-term sacrifices. They assumed that austerity was the New Normal.

However, the £1bn the government has just found down the back of the sofa debunks that, and makes Conservative spending decisions for the rest of the parliament fraught. With such a slim majority, even a small backbench rebellion – certainly no bigger than the one that was brewing over tax-credit cuts until George Osborne relen­ted – could derail the Budget.

One of the worst points of Theresa May’s election campaign was on the BBC ­Question Time special, when she struggled to tell a nurse why her pay had risen so little since 2009. “There isn’t a magic money tree that we can shake that suddenly provides for everything that people want,” the Prime Minister admonished. Except, of course, there is a magic money tree, and May has just given it a damn good shake and scrumped all the cash-apples that fell from it.

That short-term gain will store up long-term pain, if the opposition parties are canny enough to exploit it. In the 2015 election, the claim that the SNP would demand bungs from Ed Miliband to prop up his government was a powerful argument to voters in England and Wales that they should vote Conservative. Why should their hospitals and schools be left to moulder while the streets of Paisley were paved in gold?

The attack also worked because it was a proxy for concerns about Miliband’s weakness as a leader. Well, it’s hard to think of a prime minister in a weaker position than May is right now. The next election campaign will make brutal use of this.

Northern Ireland might deserve a greater wodge of redistribution than the Barnett formula already delivers – it has lower life expectancy, wages and productivity than the British average – but the squalid way the money has been delivered will haunt the Tories. It also endangers one of the Conservatives’ crucial offers to their base: that they are the custodians of “sound money” and “living within our means”.

Labour, however, has not yet quite calibrated its response to the DUP’s new-found influence. Its early attacks focused on the party’s social conservatism, pointing out that it is resolutely anti-abortion and has repeatedly blocked the extension of equal marriage through “petitions of concern” at Stormont.

This tub-thumping might have fired up Labour’s socially progressive supporters in the rest of the UK, but it alienated some in Northern Ireland who resent their politicians being seen as fundamentalist yokels. (Only they get to call the DUP that: not Londoners who, until three weeks ago, thought Arlene Foster was the judge who got sacked from Strictly Come Dancing.)

And remember: all this was to get just ten MPs onside. By March 2019, we’re supposed to have renegotiated 40 years of legislation and treaties with 27 other European ­countries. Ha. Hahaha. Hahaha.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 29 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit plague

0800 7318496