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Address to Congress by Chuka Umunna MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, 07 September 2014, Liverpool.
Thank you Congress. It’s an honour to address you for the first time today.
Let me begin by paying tribute to your General Secretary, Frances, who is doing a fantastic job leading this movement. Keeping us on our toes. And fighting for social justice in this country.
Today I’d like to speak about the importance of this movement and our shared mission to build a new economy. But as my time is limited, I won’t be able to cover all I want to say but will be happy to deal with anything I don’t address in the Q&A.
So to start with - a simple statement: I am a proud trade union member. Out of choice and out of conviction. I don’t come from a family with a history of labour trade union activism.
But my Dad – a self made man - always supported this movement and voted Labour Let me tell you why. He arrived in this country, in this very City in fact – at Liverpool Docks – in the mid-1960s, after a long boat journey from Nigeria. It took some courage. Not just because he was leaving everything he knew, but also because he couldn’t swim – if the ship went down, he was going to go with it. And he was sea sick for the entire journey. But, carrying only a battered suitcase, he made it.
He came here – like so many immigrants – to create a better life for himself and to make a contribution. But, like every other person of colour in 1960s Britain, he faced rampant discrimination. Remember the famous signs on hostel windows: “no Irish, no blacks, no dogs”.
The reason my entrepreneur father supported this movement – in fact his hero was Harold Wilson – was simple: this movement gave him a chance. The reason those racist signs came down and my father got his opportunity was because of the trade unionists and Labour Governments leading the charge for equalities legislation in the 60s and 70s. That, Congress, is why I’m so proud to be speaking here today.
Too easily, people forget the impact this movement has had. Sometimes in Westminster, you just shake your head at some of the rubbish you have to sit through. Government Members, week after week, smearing and denigrating our trade unions.
Just think: they’ve had this big push to appoint more women ministers - which is great, yet they seem to forget that these very same Conservative women have benefitted from the right to equal pay, equal rights and all the other social reforms that this movement worked so tirelessly to introduce. So they attack the very people who helped remove the barriers to their progress. It’s a disgrace and it must stop.
Maybe they think it’s pro-business to attack you. But just as I am clear that you can’t be pro-worker if you don’t back the businesses that create decent jobs; you cannot be pro-business if you constantly attack the rights and representative organisations of the people who work in our businesses.
Pro-worker, pro-business – that is the right approach. After all, many of the most successful companies in the FTSE100 are the ones that recognise the important role of trade unions and your members. And it’s an approach that’s going to be more important than ever in the future.
The challenges ahead
As a movement, we’ve always worked to ensure the right balance of power between those who have and those who do not. That ideal endures. But – let’s face it – the context in which we seek to achieve social justice – to ensure people have good, fulfilling work – is changing.
We’ve all seen the winds of change blowing through towns and communities across Britain. The emerging economies of the South and East are posing greater competition than ever to our firms and our workers. New technologies are transforming how business is done. Yes, creating new jobs, but also making many of the jobs people have done for generations disappear; and the new jobs are not always better jobs.
And, the thing is, we cannot stop this change: we can’t stop the rise of international competition. We can’t stop the onward march of technology. Doing so through protectionist measures, for example, would be entirely counter-productive.
But we can and we must shape these forces of change together to build the kinds of jobs and the better future we want for our children, our families, our communities.
We must ensure our firms are the ones producing and creating those new technologies the world wants, enabling us to pay our way in the world, building an economy of good jobs and higher wages for all.
And Congress, for this we need you. Too often, trade unions only come to prominence in the media when things reach crisis point: during difficult pay negotiations, when a plant is under threat, during a dispute. That essential role for trade unions will continue.
But we need unions to be engaged not just in times of dispute or crisis. But much earlier, in a continuous discussion, shaping the process of change. Working with our businesses to transform themselves, harness new technologies and compete with India, China and beyond.
So at the level of each firm, we must be ready for these kinds of discussion – as I know you are – and we need employers engaging with you, including you in this process. Promoting investment in people and the business, so we are producing goods and services each business can sell to the world. I am clear: adding value is what this movement does for our economy.
And this approach is needed at the level of each industry sector too. It is essential trade unions are included and play an active part on different sector bodies in shaping the different industrial strategies we have. And Government must of course play its role in the implementation of a those industrial strategies across all departments, bringing employers and union representatives together to help forge that future. Resolutely backing those sectors where we have a competitive edge or might do in the future.
That’s not happening right now. Look at the defence industry, where the Government abandoned UK firms at the start of this Parliament to buy kit off the shelf from the US. Look at renewables and the damage caused by their u-turn on Feed in Tariffs. Look at pharmaceuticals, where they were happy to waive through the takeover of our second biggest firm, AstraZeneca, by Pfizer, a firm with a record of intellectually asset stripping companies and cutting R&D investment.
As Ed Miliband says, we can and must do better than this. And under Labour our long-term plan for growth with industrial strategy at its core - we call it “Agenda 2030” - will animate the whole of government, backing our businesses and those working within them.
A strategic and strong pro-worker, pro-business agenda that has us all working together – employers, trade unions and government – to ensure the UK and all of our people succeed.
It’s the only way we will rise to the challenge of building a new economy for this modern, global world.
Tory divide and rule
Now, the Conservatives don’t understand this: that you have to build an economy – not on the stress fractures of conflict – but on the firm foundations of collaboration.
They see workers as a threat to be controlled, not as the inspiration for everything our companies achieve. They see unions as a brake on our nation’s success, not as partners in building the new shared and fair economy we need. They say we’re all in this together but their actions seek to divide and rule.
And don’t even get me started on UKIP, who take this division to a whole new level. We can’t meet the challenges our nation faces by setting our communities against each other, by scapegoating and blaming. The rhetoric which seeps out of that party in respect of our fellow Europeans is not at all dissimilar from the rhetoric deployed against black and Asian people in times past. We will not stand for it.
Labour in opposition
And that’s why when people argue that we’re all the same. I am resolute in my view that we are not. Because the Tory way, the UKIP way is not the Labour way of doing things.
Labour is a political party built on the power of common endeavour, the value of collaboration, the importance of solidarity, respecting people’s rights and ensuring they have a voice.
That’s why I’m proud we voted down the move by Tory MPs to abolish trade union facilities time in this Parliament.
It’s why I’m proud we saw off the threat of Adrian Beecroft’s compensated no-fault dismissals.
It’s why I’m proud we blocked the proposal by Vince Cable and his ministers to end the Equality & Human Rights Commission’s duty to promote equality.
Above all it’s why I’m proud to say we will do what this Government has refused to: launch a full enquiry, held publically, into the inexcusable blacklisting of workers in the construction sector. Let me be clear. If am given the privilege of serving as Business Secretary in the next Labour Government we will deliver justice to those workers who lost their livelihoods and end blacklisting for once and for all.
Labour beliefs – not just in words but, proudly, in our actions too.
Labour in government
And in Government, you will see our beliefs in action too.
We have fought to defend people’s rights and voice in opposition but these rights are only meaningful if you can get proper redress. The current employment tribunal system is unfair, unsustainable and has resulted in prohibitive costs locking people out of the justice they are entitled to.
Affordability should not be a barrier to workplace justice. But it would be a mistake to simply return to the system of the past, where tribunals were so slow that meaningful justice was not available.
So if we are elected the next Labour Government will abolish the current system, reform the employment tribunals and put in place a new system which ensures all workers have proper access to justice.
Openness and respect. Rights and justice under a future Labour Government.
It is this same drive for social justice that has driven our commitment to restoring the value of the national minimum wage, alongside increased fines and better enforcement, to incentivise employers to pay a living wage, to outlaw exploitative zero hours contracts. Because if you work hard – day in, day out – you shouldn’t have to live in poverty or have insecurity heaped upon you.
And there is more. We will take action to ensure agency workers are properly protected and that there are no exemptions from equal treatment on pay including by ending the Swedish derogation from the Agency Regulations. We will extend the remit of the Gangmasters Licencing Authority.
But all of this will only happen if a Labour Government is elected.
And I should say: if you live in Scotland, the SNP would have you believe that social justice can be achieved by voting for separation. But when asked what measures in their White Paper redistribute money and power from those who have it and to those who do not, they have no answer because there are none. Instead they are committed to a further 3p reduction in corporation tax for the biggest and wealthiest companies.
Congress, there is only one way to achieve better social justice in this United Kingdom and that is through this pro-worker pro-business agenda I have talked about which the election of a Labour Government will deliver not separation.
To finish, I’d like to go back to the beginning.
When my father arrived here in Liverpool, he was filled with hope and ambition. That’s what this country represented to him – and what it proved. Due to your work in protecting his rights, the infrastructure this country provided and his ability to see the opportunity in the world – he was able to make it.
That simple story of hope, hard work, rights, opportunity and success is what we want for all of our people. That we can lead lives where tomorrow is better than today and we can give our children more than we had.
Let’s work together – in solidarity – to make that happen.