The Brexit Crisis and British Labour

Two Speeches from the 2019 TUC Congress

Jeremy Corbyn MP, Leader of the UK Labour Party, speaking at the 151st annual TUC Congress in Brighton.

Congress, thank you for that warm welcome. It’s an honour to be asked to address you again. I’m proud that trade unions and the Labour Party are working as closely together now as we ever have. Because together we are one movement – the Labour Movement, the greatest force for progressive change this country has ever known. So thank you to every single one of you for what you do, for your members and for our society.

And thank you to Frances O’Grady for your work as the TUC’s General Secretary. You are a brilliant voice in standing up for workers.

I want to pay special thanks too to TUC President Mark Serwotka. Mark, you are one of the most dedicated and one of the bravest trade union leaders we’ve ever had and you’re a walking advertisement for our wonderful National Health Service (NHS).

Your union, Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), is doing brilliant work representing workers at the BEIS Department in Whitehall, some of whom were here yesterday, and who have been on strike for two months now, because the Government won’t pay them the living wage. Solidarity to them.

I also want to send solidarity to the occupying workers at Harland & Wolff, some of whom have joined us here today.

Congress, this time last week the Conservatives and Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) had a majority of 1 in the House of Commons. Last time I checked their majority was down to -45. Today Parliament stands empty, shut down by a Prime Minister running away from scrutiny.

But let me say this. We mustn’t mistake the drama at Westminster for what real politics is about. What truly matters to people isn’t resignations, defections and late night votes in parliament. For most people all of that is a million miles away.

What truly matters is the reality of their everyday lives – in their community, on the streets, at their workplace. Real politics for me isn’t about the parliamentary knockabout with all its baffling language and procedures. Real politics is about giving power to people who don’t have a lot of money and don’t have friends in high places so they can take control of their own lives.

Boris Johnson’s political strategy is perfectly clear. He wants to stage a showdown over a No Deal Brexit that he can repackage as a battle between parliament and the people – with the people in this melodrama played by none other than that man of the people – Boris Johnson himself.

But the idea that Johnson and his wealthy friends and backers somehow represent the people is truly absurd. Johnson and his hard right cabinet are not only on the side of the establishment … they are the establishment. And this Tory government isn’t so different from any other Tory government: they will help the rich get richer and make working class people pay.

Johnson’s reckless No Deal would destroy jobs, push up food prices in the shops and cause shortages of everyday medicines that people rely on. And who bears the cost of that? It wouldn’t be Johnson and his wealthy friends. It’s not their livelihoods on the line. It would be the rest of us.

Just as it wasn’t the bankers Boris Johnson still defends who paid the price for the financial crash of 2008, it was tens of millions of people who had nothing to do with it.

For the Tories this is about so much more than leaving the European Union. It’s about hijacking the referendum result to shift even more power and wealth to those at the top. They will use a No Deal crash to push through policies that benefit them and their super-rich supporters and hurt everyone else – just as they did after the financial crash.

Under the cover of No Deal they will sell off our public services, strip away the regulations that keep us safe, and undermine workers’ rights. And they will cement all of this in a race-to-the-bottom trade deal with Donald Trump.

Be in no doubt – a No Deal Brexit is really a Trump Deal Brexit, leading to a one-sided US trade deal negotiated from a position of weakness. It will put us at the mercy of Trump and the big US corporations itching to get their teeth further into our NHS, sound the death knell for our steel industry and permanently drive down rights and protections for workers. I am not prepared to stand by and let that happen.

And we won’t be importing so called ‘right-to-work’ laws from the US – an Orwellian name if ever I heard one – or any other union busting laws being opposed by our comrades in American unions that Trump will want to impose on British workers.

A Trump Deal Brexit would be a betrayal of the generations of workers who went before, who fought so hard to win the rights and build the public services that bind our society together.

That’s their legacy, their gift to us. We’re not going to let Boris Johnson trade it all away for a sweetheart deal with Trump.

That’s why our priority is first to stop No Deal and then to trigger a general election.

Amber Rudd’s resignation confirmed that the government is not serious about trying to get a deal in Brussels.

As the prime minister’s top adviser reportedly said: the negotiations are “a sham.” No one can trust the word of a prime minister who is threatening to break the law to force through No Deal.

So a general election is coming. But we won’t allow Johnson to dictate the terms.

And I can tell you this: we’re ready for that election. We’re ready to unleash the biggest people-powered campaign we’ve ever seen.

And in that election we will commit to a public vote with a credible option to leave and the option to remain.

Labour is on the side of the people in the real battle against the born-to-rule establishment that Johnson represents. We stand for the interests of the many – the overwhelming majority who do the work and pay their taxes – not the few at the top … who hoard the wealth and dodge their taxes.

It’s Labour’s historic mission to transform people’s lives and that transformation begins in the workplace.

In our country workers have been losing out for far too long. For 40 years the share of the cake going to workers has been getting smaller and smaller.

In 1976 wages took over 64% of GDP now it’s only 54%:

It’s no coincidence that the same period has seen a sustained attack on the organisations that represent workers – trade unions.

We have witnessed a deliberate, decades-long transfer of power away from working people. The consequences are stark for all workers, whether members of a trade union or not. Pay is lower than it was a decade ago in real terms.

I’m told that the last decade has seen the biggest squeeze on wages since the Napoleonic Wars.

Personally I can’t remember that far back, so I tried to contact Jacob Rees-Mogg this morning to check, but he was fast asleep again on the government benches.

Things cannot go on as they are. Change is coming. And it must be change that gives power to the true wealth creators – the workers.

So, today we are announcing that the next Labour government will bring about the biggest extension of rights for workers that our country has ever seen.

We will put power in the hands of workers. What will that mean for people? Better wages, greater security, and more say. We’ll give workers a seat at the Cabinet table by establishing a new Ministry of Employment Rights.

Our shadow Secretary of State for Employment Rights, Laura Pidcock, will explain the detail of our plans when she speaks later. But let me give you an overview. At the core of its work will be rolling out collective bargaining across the economy sector by sector. It’s a system they have in many of the most successful economies around the world. It prevents undercutting on wages, fosters workplace stability and encourages businesses to invest in productivity. It’s only by acting together, collectively, that workers can really make their voice heard.

So within 100 days of Labour taking office, we will repeal the Tory Trade Union Act.

There’s nothing scary about trade unions. However hard the billionaire-owned media tries to paint them as such. They are the country’s largest democratic organisations rooted in the workplace.

Why should democracy end when you walk into work? Why should the place where you spend most of your day sometimes feel like a dictatorship? If as an individual you’re asked to work in conditions that are unsafe, what choice do you have? It’s take it or leave it.

But as part of a union, with strength in numbers, you can demand a safe working environment.

I want to say this to everybody who is watching beyond this hall. If you’re feeling powerless about your work situation – take action now – today. Join a trade union.

But there’s a big role for government too in extending workers’ legal rights.

Labour will deliver a real living wage of at least £10 per hour for all workers, from the age of 16 action on the gender pay gap, equal rights for all workers from day one and the end of zero-hour contracts.

And Labour won’t tell people they have to work until they are 75 before getting their pension.

But rights only mean anything if they’re enforced. Too many employers are getting away with flouting laws. Nearly half a million people are still being paid less than the minimum wage. We’ll put a stop to that. We’ll create a Workers Protection Agency with real teeth, including the power to enter workplaces and bring prosecutions on workers’ behalf.

If you’re a worker with a boss who makes you work extra hours for no pay or forces you into dangerous situations, you deserve a government that’s on your side and ready to step in to support you.

Our proposals have been developed in consultation with experts, and I would like to thank John Hendy and Keith Ewing in particular for all their help and advice.

Congress, what we’re outlining today will lay the ground for a fundamental transformation of our economy, in favour of the many.

But I have some bad news. We’ve been found out. Last week the Financial Times said that Labour is, and I quote: “determined to shift power away from bosses and landlords and to workers and tenants.”

Well there has been no shortage of rather unkind reporting about our party over the last few years, but this time they’ve got it absolutely right.

We will put workers on company boards, and give the workforce a 10% stake in large companies paying a dividend of as much as £500 a year to each employee.

And we will give tenants more rights including caps on rent rises.

And that principle of empowering people doesn’t just apply to the workplace.

We’ll bring rail, mail, water and the national grid into public ownership, so the essential utilities that people rely on are run by and for the public, not just shareholders.

I want to thank all the unions that are working with us, to develop our new model of public ownership. We’re not recreating the nationalised boards of the past, we’re creating the democracy of tomorrow.

And as we set out how our future economy will operate, we cannot ignore the most pressing issue of all: the climate crisis. Because the destruction of our climate is also a class issue.

It’s working class communities that suffer the worst air pollution – think of all the children living on polluted streets. And it’s working class people who will lose their jobs as resources run down.

The super-rich and the giant corporations will never solve the major design flaws in our economy that are causing the problem, because interests are tied up with them.

But working with the trade union movement, Labour will start a Green Industrial Revolution creating 400,000 well-paid, high skilled, unionised jobs in renewable energy and green technologies.

And we will locate these new industries in parts of the country that have been held back by successive governments; that have focused on the richest in the City of London.

Congress, the coming general election will be a chance for a real change of direction. In the next few weeks the establishment will come after us with all they’ve got, because they know we’re not afraid to take them on.

We’re going after the tax avoiders.

We’re going after the bad bosses.

We’re going after the dodgy landlords.

We’re going after the big polluters destroying our climate.

Because we know whose side we’re on. We’re creating a society of hope and inclusion – not poverty – and division. Thank you. •

Frances O’Grady’s keynote speech at TUC Congress 2019

Frances Lorraine O’Grady, General Secretary of the British Trades Union Congress (TUC), speaking at its Congress in Brighton.

Thanks to the President and to our General Council. And my thanks to you too, delegates. And to our brilliant workplace reps. Because of your hard work, our collective membership is up. One hundred thousand extra new members. Let’s put our hands together and welcome every single one of them.

This movement is growing. There is strength in numbers. We can win. And, believe you me, we intend to. So, since the EU referendum just three years ago David Cameron walked out, Theresa May was pushed out, and then in strolls Boris Johnson. We have a prime minister supposedly for the whole of the UK, chosen by a Tory party membership, not even a fraction of the size of Brighton. Only somewhat older. Somewhat whiter. And, no doubt, somewhat richer too.

Boris Johnson faced parliament for just one day before he announced he would shut it down. Let’s remember that this year is the 200th anniversary of Peterloo – when working class people put their lives on the line to win representation for people like us. So let me remind Boris Johnson: Parliament doesn’t belong to you. Or your rich mates. Parliament belongs to the people.

Now, Boris Johnson is used to getting his own way. And if people won’t do what he wants, he calls them chicken. That’s a bit rich coming from a lame duck. In any case, he’s the coward. He’s the one running scared of parliament and he’s the one running up the white flag. He’s surrendered to the DUP. He’s surrendered to the Brexit Party. And now he’s ready to surrender our NHS to Donald Trump.

So now, the choice is clear. Either we win our vision of the future or the hard-right win theirs. Because for the hard right of the Tory Party, Brexit was always a political project. To leave the EU, yes, but also to radically reshape this country as a low-tax, low-rights, free market economy. A cold, hard place with no compassion, no help in hard times. Everyone for themselves.

They want to slash taxes for the wealthy, attack safeguards for our welfare and they insult us – saying British workers are the laziest in the world. These are the self-styled bad boys of the Tory Party. They think they’re Westminster’s answer to the Sex Pistols. But, in truth, they’re just the bully boys of the British elite. Look at the special advisers who have moved into Downing Street. Like Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s right hand man. A man who thinks he’s a genius. To be fair, sisters, in my time I’ve met a few of those. But his politics belong in the gutter.

This is what he said about the campaign to leave the EU (and I quote): “Immigration was a baseball bat that just needed picking up, at the right time and in the right way.” Whichever way you voted in the referendum, I hope you agree, that’s disgusting. Denying our common humanity. Defying all common decency. It tells us everything we need to know about the moral vacuum at the heart of number ten. And why we can’t trust them on Brexit.

But I will say this: when I hear people complain that what’s gone wrong with Britain, is Brexit. I say the vote to leave the EU isn’t the cause of what’s gone wrong. It is a symptom of what’s gone wrong. And those who think we can just turn back the clock; Get back to business as usual: I say think again. We can’t sort out Brexit unless we rebuild Britain. Rebuild good working-class jobs. Rebuild public services, homes and communities and rebuild our democracy too. One reason why we’re in this mess is because, when the bankers crashed the economy, working families paid the price. Greed and inequality ran riot while wages and public services were cut to the bone.

This country is wasting our best skills and talent. Many working-class people feel ignored – shut out from opportunities. It’s hard to rise by hard graft and talent alone. The system is rigged from the start – where you come from, what your parents do, your accent, which school you went to. If you’re from a working-class family, the odds are stacked against you. And, let’s be honest, Britain is still blighted by old-fashioned snobbery too: inflated egos and a sense of entitlement. Picture Jacob Rees Mogg. Treating the government front bench like his own living room sofa when he’s supposed to be there to work and serve.

Now, when I talk about the working class, I’m not harking back to some old Hovis ad. Some people seem to think that working class means white and male. But today’s working class looks like modern Britain. As likely to work in an office, as a factory, to be a care assistant, as a car worker, and to wear a hijab, as a football shirt. (Or, quite possibly, both). And it’s not just the working class that looks different. Britain is run by a new oligarchy. They own hedge funds, buy property, sell data. They resent playing by the rules to protect workers, or the planet. And they certainly don’t like paying their fair share of tax.

This isn’t always about which class people come from. It’s about which class they’re fighting for. I’m talking about the likes of Jim Ratcliffe. He used to be the UK’s richest man until he had billions of reasons to move to Monaco. Or James Dyson, who now owns more acres of land than the Queen. And multi-millionaire Tim Martin of Wetherspoons, who claims he’s being so generous with the price of beer, but is so tight-fisted, he refuses to pay staff the real living wage.

This is isn’t about the politics of envy. It’s about the politics of justice. Because workers create the wealth and workers should get a fair share of it. But in Britain, too often it’s a case of who you know, not what you know. Unpaid internships and work trials make the entry ticket unaffordable. The vocational route is still looked down on as second best. And even if you go to university and get a top class degree, it’s no guarantee. Compared to friends from better off backgrounds, you’re much more likely to end up in a lower paid job lumped with a lifetime of student debt.

That massive gap between those at the top, and everyone else, has reshaped British society. After all, doing well at school or college doesn’t stop you ending up on a zero hours contract. Working hard doesn’t stop your boss watching you like Big Brother. And too often promotion means bags more responsibility; but precious little extra pay. Remember back in the day when New Labour proclaimed ‘we’re all middle class now’? How times change. Because today we are all working class now.

And we should be proud of ourselves. We are the backbone of Britain who build the houses, drive the lorries, stack the shelves, wash and feed our older neighbours, teach our kids, take the x-rays, sort our post, deliver our babies, cook, clean, wash and make the tea. Without us there is no NHS, no schools, no shopping, no culture or entertainment, no infrastructure, no transport. The services we rely on grind to a halt.

And we are ambitious for change. A new deal. A fair deal. I’m proud that, over the years, this movement campaigned to outlaw discrimination against women, disabled and black workers, older workers, younger workers and LGBT workers too. Those rights matter. Not just to individuals, but as a foundation unions can build on.

And let’s pay tribute to the glorious women of Glasgow – cleaners, cooks, nursery nurses. Thanks to their union, thanks to their courage, thanks to their strike, they have finally won equal pay. But there’s more to do. So today I want to issue a challenge to politicians. It’s high time we outlawed discrimination against working class people. Let’s change the law and stamp out class prejudice once and for all.

But let me be clear. Class justice isn’t just about the law. It runs much deeper than that. Long before Brexit, for many working people, the world was already harsh. And we were already in the grip of vicious austerity.

A political choice that caused untold hardship and heartbreak. That’s why it’s so important to rule out a no deal Brexit. As we saw after the financial crash: Economic shocks always hit our people, first and hardest. We know what recessions mean for our jobs and industries. We know what happens to mental health, crime and communities. And we know those scars last generations. And now we also know just how bad the alternative could be.

Yes. I’m talking about Donald Trump. After Brexit, he’s promised us a special relationship. Yeah. Like a dog and a lamp post have a special relationship. The President owes favours to his friends in big pharma. They want health care in the UK turned into a free market and he wants a deal that would drive up prices for medicines. Not so much a trade deal. More a protection racket with secret courts, where corporations hold our NHS to ransom.

So let’s be clear: if it takes the last breath in our bodies, we will defend our precious health service. We’ll do whatever it takes to protect staff and patients. Donald Trump, get your tiny little hands off our NHS!

It didn’t have to be like this. After the EU referendum result the TUC tried to find a way though that would help bring the country back together. We set out our priorities for a deal protecting jobs, rights, peace in Ireland. Our bottom line was that workers mustn’t pay the price. But as each day passes, it’s clear that Boris Johnson never wanted compromise. He never wanted a deal and he will do whatever it takes to get his own way, and he thinks he’s above the law.

The prime minister acts like he’s the clown prince of Downing Street, but the last thing we need is BoJo the clown in charge – and Brexit isn’t a game. What happens next matters to people’s real lives and the responsibility for this mess sits squarely on the prime minister’s shoulders.

As we live through this political crisis. I know that many people feel overwhelmed. Anxious. Intimidated. All the more reason to join a union. Because in the trade union movement we stand up to bullies. Make no mistake, we will defend working people. And I’m here to give a warning. If the prime minister tries to trick us or refuses to obey the law that stops no deal and workers vote to strike to defend their jobs, then the gloves are off.

And I want to make this crystal clear – this whole movement will stand together. We will stand by our friends who are EU citizens too. We won’t allow another Windrush. And we’ll stand up to violent thugs like Stephen Yaxley Lennon, Tommy Robinson. That man is no working class hero – he’s a racist now banged up in prison where he belongs.

You see, when working people organise, we have courage. We stick together, stand up and fight. And we are the true optimists. We know there is a better way where this country draws on the talents of all our people and makes sure that everyone has a voice – and a stake – in rebuilding Britain. A new deal for working people.

So let’s use our political voice. Hold our nerve and get no deal ruled out for good. Then we can have that general election to get the change working people need. And, Boris, you bet we’re ready because we want a government that respects working people, makes it easier to raise a family, helps us win a fair wage, removes the obscenity of families queuing at food banks, builds homes and keeps communities safe, takes care of our NHS. A government that is compassionate and tolerant, and, for the sake of our young people, brings hope for the future.

A government that will rebuild Britain and, on Brexit, one that trusts the people to have the final say. A popular vote on any deal with Remain on the ballot paper. We are only weeks away from a general election. We know that together we can do it. Together we can win. A government of the people, for the people. And for the sake of our democracy, for the sake of common decency, let’s get Jeremy in, and send Boris Johnson packing. •