Delivered Date
16 Sep 2015

Shami Chakrabarti addresses Trades Union Congress 2015

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Mr President, it's a daunting honour to address this Congress on behalf of the National Council for Civil Liberties (NCCL) – Liberty, at such a vital moment in the struggle for fundamental rights and freedoms around the world.
 
Workers’ rights and human rights have always been inseparable. We are no less human on the shop floor or picket line than in the living room or at the food bank – no less human for the accident of being born on one spot of our restless planet rather than another. And inequalities and abuses of power always begin with divide and rule.
 
The NCCL was founded in 1934 because hunger marchers arriving in Hyde Park were duffed up by the police. That would never happen today – would it? Undercover police officers dressed as marchers and behaved violently in order to justify a violent policing response. Remember that whenever a Home Secretary says that the innocent have nothing to fear from unchecked police power. Remember too the databases of blacklisted trade unionists of recent years, the women in the environmental movement in intimate relationships with men who turned out to be abusing police power. Remember my friend Doreen Lawrence. Not only did they fail to investigate her son's racist murder. When her campaign for justice began to gain ground – when she embarrassed the authorities – they investigated her instead.
 
There has been an authoritarian arms race in British politics for at least 20 years with both major parties attacking the basic rights and freedoms of ordinary people. The new Labour leadership has an opportunity to change that in a way that many liberal Conservatives would welcome.  But the trade union movement never wavered in its support for Liberty.
 
I am here because a great friend of mine, and of human rights the world over, invited me. In Frances O'Grady, your first woman General Secretary, you have a great leader and role model to campaigners, and especially to young women, at this extraordinary moment of challenge and opportunity for all of us who believe that there is more to life than letting other people’s children drown – not in far-away oceans, but in seas of smug self-interest closer to home.
 
I'm here because Mary Bousted was once an inspirational English teacher in a comprehensive school who taught a stroppy but not always strategic 15-year-old daughter of migrants how to understand To Kill a Mockingbird and how to present a better argument. That 15 year old grew up to become a lawyer and activist and to be dubbed "the most dangerous woman in Britain" by the Sun newspaper. This was a badge I carefully polished before my title was stolen earlier this year by a charismatic politician North of the Border. To add insult to injury, the First Minister of Scotland is younger than me!
 
And I'm here with fond memories of the late great Steve Sinnot, one of the first people in public life to befriend and support me when I took on the challenging role of leading Liberty just a couple of years into the "War on Terror". An instinctive feminist as well as trade unionist, I think he knew then what is only so very clear to me now.
 
Women, now more than half of trade unionists, are surely this movement's secret weapon, capable of changing its face and fortunes and of expelling the spectre of a return to 1970s strife once and for all. Whichever union you are from, push the women to the front. Nudge them towards the cameras and microphones and into leadership positions. What better contrast with the elites in politics and big business? What truer representation of modern trade unionism?
 
I am here most of all because of the need for solidarity against the current assault on liberty.
 
The new Trade Union Bill and imminent threat to the Human Rights Act represent a spiteful and ideological attack on rights and freedoms that must have Disraeli and Churchill spinning in their graves. Forcing dissenters to wear armbands? Forcing them to register with the police? Has this Government no history or imagination?
These attempts to divide, rule and dominate ordinary people in different sectors of the economy and different parts of the world are neither democratic nor conservative, and I urge all thoughtful "one nation" parliamentarians to defeat them.
 
Government as legislator is simply abusing its power over the statute book to allow it to abuse its power as a big employer. If it wants to avoid disruption to public services it should look after its work force, not make pathetic attempts to demonise it in the eyes of the rest of the people.
 
How would it be if there could only be six people on a pro-countryside demonstration or if shareholders or consumers were restricted from collective action against investment in apartheid South Africa?
 
Why should anyone need permission for their freedoms of association and expression including on social media?
 
And it is the same authoritarian instinct motivating the Government to scrap our Human Rights Act and even to pull Britain out of the Convention on Human Rights.
 
Trades unions fought for women's votes, pay and better workplace conditions. Human rights laws protect them from rape and trafficking, deportation and discrimination. Let's be clear that women would be amongst the greatest victims of this Government's onslaught on freedom and we must not let it succeed.
 
A great new film called Suffragette opens in a few weeks. A blockbuster perfectly timed for this moment of adversity and opportunity. It will remind audiences worldwide of the enduring importance of dissent and solidarity and show our own government to be on the wrong side of liberty and history.
 
Why should internationalism just be for money and markets and corporations and organised crime? Why not for ordinary people and their values? Why should human rights only be an excuse for military intervention over there and not protection of the vulnerable closer to home? The people's response to the refugee crisis has already shamed the Government into showing just an ounce of decency. It showed the Government on the wrong side of humanity.
 
Together we can defend our hard-won rights and freedoms. Thank you for listening.