Issue date
13 Sep 2010

General Secretary's Address to Congress 2010

Speech by Brendan Barber to the TUC in Manchester, 13 September 2010

President, Congress. Welcome to Manchester. Cradle of the industrial revolution. Birthplace of our movement.

And today still a great progressive city.

Home to three universities. Two Premier League football teams. And just one Conservative councillor.

Congress, my address to you usually ranges wide. I survey the year gone by and celebrate our achievements. I look to the future and the challenges we face. Stress our commitment to equality and social justice. Make clear our abiding internationalism.

I could make that speech this year too. There are certainly achievements to celebrate. I'm proud that once again a record number of workers are accessing learning through their union. And I'm proud of the practical support we have given to our brothers and sisters across the world, from Haiti to Palestine, from Zimbabwe to Colombia. I'm proud that our movement helped inflict a crushing defeat on the BNP at the election, and today let us salute everyone in Barking who ensured that Nick Griffin's bid for parliament ended in such abject failure.

But Congress, as we reflect on our achievements, we must also face up to the stark realities confronting us. Because this year things are different. There is one overwhelming issue that the working people of this country face. That is the government's determination to drive through massive spending cuts - which will not only devastate the services we rely on, but do untold damage to our economic prospects.

This is why today in this address I also move the General Council statement on the economy. This is the union case for an alternative and sets out how we will win the argument for change. I make no apologies for concentrating on this today. Congress, nobody can deny the depth of the recession. Made in the boardrooms of the world's banks, spread like a contagion by the financial system, it has savaged jobs and living standards. Not just in the UK, not just in the advanced economies, but throughout the world.

This was not just the normal ups and downs of the business cycle - painful though these can be. It was more fundamental than that. It was the complete failure of the neoliberal economic model. We made finance our master, not our servant; forgot that markets need rules; and ran our economy in the interests of the owners of wealth, not those who create it. The result was the biggest speculative bubble for decades - and inevitably it burst.

Rightly, governments made sure that the banking system did not collapse. They took emergency action to ensure that recession did not turn into slump. They showed that we did not have to repeat the 1930s - the last time we faced a similar finance-induced crash.

Employers and unions agreed short-time working and flexible ways of keeping skilled workforces together. Alongside government action, this has made sure that unemployment has not become as bad is it was in the 1980s. Yet it still hit its highest level for decades.

In some regions of Britain, one in ten people are without work. Young people have been hit as hard as in any previous downturn. And with college places slashed, many good students still face life on the dole.

But the new government would not recognise what I have said this morning. They say that the deficit is the big economic problem. Reducing it is the only political priority. And they are going to do it by unprecedented spending cuts, however dangerous they are for the recovery.

Tax has little more than a walk-on part. And that mainly from VAT. Always the Conservative's favourite tax - the one that bears down most on the poor and those in the middle. Coalition politicians have repeatedly told us that they would spare frontline services, that they would not increase inequality, and that they would protect the vulnerable. Over the past four months, they have already broken each and every one of these pledges.

Building Schools for the Future; support for kids with learning difficulties; free school meals for half a million low-paid families; NHS Direct; the guarantee of work, education or training for our young people; free prescriptions for the long-term sick; the Child Trust Fund; benefits and pensions linked to RPI; programmes to build social housing; even Domestic Violence Protection Orders - all slashed. Every public service in every community is under threat.

Think about what's happening here in Manchester. Projects to rebuild 10,000 homes in run-down areas axed. £560 million of transport schemes scrapped. Sweeping cuts at Bolton, Salford, Trafford and Rochdale councils. 150 firefighter jobs at risk in Greater Manchester Fire Service. £7 million of cuts in the police force. Up to a thousand NHS admin jobs in danger. And a local breast cancer helpline, that has taken 80,000 calls since it was set up, about to be closed - because health trusts will no longer foot the £63,000 annual running cost.

Congress, when ministers talk about progressive cuts, and tell us 'we're all in it together', let us expose this for the insulting claptrap that it is. Let's be clear about this: cuts always hit the poorest, most vulnerable, most disadvantaged people. That's why the IFS described the Budget as 'clearly regressive'. And that's why an OECD study of Sweden's and Canada's cuts in the nineties found that inequality and poverty rates accelerated faster there than anywhere else in the developed world. And that's what yesterday's TUC report spelled out in the first authoritative analysis of its kind.

Congress, this year's election did not give anybody a clear mandate to start slashing public spending. But what we've now got is not just a coalition government, but a demolition government.

No government would ever get elected on a platform of doing such damage to public services. Yet the Prime Minister has been clear that these are not temporary cuts, but a permanent roll back of public services and the welfare state. Not so much an economic necessity as a political project - driven by an ideological clamour for a minimal state.

But ministers must understand this: what they take apart now could take generations to rebuild. Decent public services are the glue that holds a civilised society together, and we diminish them at our peril. Cut services, put jobs in peril, and increase inequality - that is the way to make Britain a darker, brutish, more frightening place. And let no-one doubt that unions and the TUC will protect and defend dedicated public service workers.

I take no pleasure in looking ahead to the prospect of difficult disputes, and our critics like nothing better than to misrepresent us. They say we are set on confrontation, that we don't care about the rest of society, that we are just pursuing narrow self interest.

I know, and you know, it's just not like that. No-one takes industrial action lightly. We are at the heart of our communities, passionately concerned to defend the integrity and the quality of the services we provide. But we are entitled to be clear. Although the government is pursuing a political programme that we will only defeat politically, where members - faced with attacks on jobs, pay or pensions - take a democratic decision for industrial action, they will have the support of their unions and the TUC stands ready to co-ordinate that.

But we also need to be clear it is not just public services and public sector jobs that will be hit by the cuts. There is a huge threat to the private sector too, with sectors like construction already feeling the pain because the government spends over £200 billion a year procuring goods and services from business. If this is cut by 25 per cent, or more, then there will be a gaping hole in the economy. Output will fall. Unemployment will rise. The deficit will get worse not better. That's what the IMF and the OECD are now warning about. I very much hope that we can avoid a double-dip recession.

But I fear the best we can hope for in the years ahead is an economy that scrapes along the bottom. One that fails to generate growth and jobs. One that betrays a generation of young people. One that hinders our transition to a low-carbon future.

You cannot pick up a newspaper without reading about some group saying don't cut us, we are too important. One day it's scientists, another it's the arts. Green campaigners saying that climate change is too much of a threat. Anti-poverty groups distressed about the impact on the poor. The housing lobby warning of the looming housing shortage. Business saying don't cut infrastructure or skills. And you know, they are all right.

But too many people still accept that the only economic choice is between accepting the government's programme for reducing the deficit - or an irresponsible slide to bankruptcy.

Voters are getting worried about the cuts - worried that they might be too fast and too deep. But so far they have yet to back the alternative. That's why we have to win the intellectual battle showing that there is a better way to reduce the deficit. One that not only avoids savage cuts, but is more likely to work as it avoids the risk of the double dip.

And the GC statement spells out our alternative:

First, we need a realistic timetable - rather than expect the damage done by a bubble that grew for decades to be put right in just four years.

Second, we need more flexibility - ministers must make clear that if the economy goes into reverse, then they will stop the medicine whose side effects are killing the patient.

Third, we need to make growth our priority - that is the only sure way to close the deficit as it is the only way to get tax revenues flowing again.

Fourth, we need a bigger role for tax - cuts increase inequality and punish those that did least to cause the crash. That's why we back a Robin Hood tax to make the banks pay their way. And rather than cutting HMRC staff, let's crack down on super-rich tax dodgers and the loopholes they exploit.

Fifth, we need a different kind of economy - where manufacturing retains its rightful place, where every region is a growth region, and where we invest in the low-carbon industries of the future.

Congress, our plan not only avoids the pain and unfairness of the government's approach, but is more likely to work in the short, medium and long term. We only have to look across the Irish Sea for a warning of what can go wrong. They have made huge cuts, and yet the economic slowdown has been so great that their credit rating has been downgraded time and time again. This Congress is not sticking our heads in the sand or avoiding difficult decisions. It is a genuine and effective programme to reduce the deficit - an alternative to austerity that encourages growth and jobs.

That is why today I lay down this challenge to our movement. We have to start and win this great debate about the country's economic future. We have to mobilise in every community and every constituency so that the cuts become the issue that decides the next election. We have to engage with service users, charities, and community groups, everyone worried about the impact of cuts on what they hold dear in a civilised society.

It can be done. Look at the brilliant and effective campaign by our schools' unions against the Government attempt to herd thousands of schools into a headlong rush to academy status. They made sure that school leaders and Governors were challenged, to think carefully and to consult first with parents and their communities. As a result instead of a flood of applications to change to academy status we saw a feeble dribble. It's because our unions reached out beyond the confines of our movement - to parents, governors and local communities - that the overwhelming majority of schools refused to sign up to this monumental folly.

So Congress, now is the time for us to build a diverse, dynamic and progressive alliance for change. A coalition against cuts. Not just rediscovering our campaigning roots and traditions - but embracing the power of new technology to get our case across. Not just making a success of our rally on October 19th ahead of the Comprehensive Spending Review - but following it up with action in every region and pressure on every coalition MP.

Not just planning ahead for our national demonstration next March - but capturing the imagination of the British people in the process.

President, Congress. This is a heavy responsibility. The weeks and months ahead will test us as never before. And at all times we must and will speak up for everyone in Britain today. Not just public servants. Not just private sector workers. Not just the poor. Not just the vulnerable. Not just those in the middle struggling to make ends meet - but everyone.

Let us show there is a genuine alternative to cuts. Let us win this battle for hearts and minds. And together let us shape a more hopeful future for all.

Thank you.