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Full speech: Tom Watson at Labour party conference

27 September 2016

5:16 PM

27 September 2016

5:16 PM

Hello, Conference. Thank you for being here in this great city, at this historic gathering of the greatest movement for social change our great country has ever known. It’s a privilege to address you. Thank you.

I’d better get the difficult stuff out of the way: Saturday’s result, whatever you think of the man, whatever he’s done, how can Ed Balls be bottom of the leader board on Strictly Come Dancing? Strictly, of course, is a hot bed of media-obsessed prima donnas and harsh critics slating your every move. You’d think after a decade in Parliament Ed would have done better than that. Disappointing, Ed, to be honest.

Whereas I have always aimed to be outstanding in my field, except when, at quite a critical point this year, I was just out, standing in a field. Meanwhile the Lib Dems are trying to get back onto the field, of course. Pitching to our supporters.Tim Farron’s been telling people that only the Lib Dems can provide “strong” opposition. Tim, I do admire your ambition but, mate, you’ve got eight MPs. You couldn’t be the strong opposition in a baton-twirling contest.

And as for Theresa May, well, on some issues, I’ve got some time for her. (This isn’t a joke, by the way, it’s a serious bit). As Home Secretary, during my campaign for the truth on child sexual abuse, she tried to do the right thing and if she really does force an inquiry into the conduct of South Yorkshire police at Orgreave, she won’t just have my support, she’ll have the whole Labour movement behind her.

On that one issue and she deserves recognition for becoming Britain’s second woman Prime Minister. We can’t afford for that to be something the Tories keep doing, but we don’t. A Labour woman Prime Minister is long overdue.

So Conference, I bear Mrs May no ill will. In fact, to be honest I feel a little bit sorry for her. She’s like a Lib Dem manifesto pledge: she’s been abandoned. David Cameron has created the biggest political, financial and diplomatic mess in modern British history and he’s just walked away. To write his million-pound memoirs. Working title: Eton mess. And poor Theresa’s just left there, wondering where everybody went.

I’d like to be able to tell you that Britain is safe in her hands; that the savage cuts, and falling wages, and exploitative work practices are behind us. That now, as others have said, we’ve got a “grown up” in charge. But I’m afraid I can’t. I’ve seen up close what it takes to be Prime Minister and I’ve seen what it takes out of you. And Theresa May hasn’t got what it takes.

Hinckley Point: it was on, it was off. It was still off, then it was on again. This is an enormous national infrastructure project involving a French government firm and £6billion of Chinese investment. It’s not a game.

And grammar schools. First they were an ambition, then a cast-iron promise, then a consultation. At PMQs when Jeremy asked her to set out the principles behind her plan, she dodged him. When he challenged her to provide evidence it would boost social mobility, she ducked him. When he demanded to know which experts backed her, she weaved away from him. Ducking and diving; humming and hahing. It’s not what you want from a Prime Minster.

On the Northern powerhouse, Heathrow, the Single Market, the best system of firm-but-fair immigration: time and again we’ve had the same shambolic prevarication. Theresa May or Theresa May not. Who knows? But everyone knows you can’t run a country like that.

 Now Conference, it will take time. The press barons will be on her side – for now. But if we stay focused and disciplined and determined, then gradually the country will start to see what we can already see: that she just isn’t up to the job.

Think about this: Theresa May has no mandate from the voters. She has no mandate from the members of the Conservative party. She doesn’t even have a mandate from a majority of her own MPs. Nobody has voted for Theresa May to be Prime Minister and that’s a pretty flimsy basis on which to try and hold the Tories together, never mind the country.

And yet the global issues we face are so huge and complex. Syria, the refugee crisis, Brexit, ISIS: challenges to test the most experienced leader. But ask yourselves this question: who would look at the bloody labyrinth of Syria, and the desperate plight of Europe’s huddled masses, and conclude “this time of crisis calls for just one man. Get me Boris Johnson”? Boris Johnson?

Hillary Clinton’s famous test was “who do you want answering that red emergency phone at 3am?” I dread to think what Boris Johnson is up to at 3.00 am. And the Tories tell us we’re not serious about national security. He’s a bounder and a joker but these are serious issues.

Let me be clear: we’re an internationalist party. Our collectivist principles extend across national boundaries. The Labour family is a global family. On Brexit, we will respect the views of the British people but we will not let Theresa May and her colleagues hide behind the British people.

Mrs May, you’re the Prime Minister. You say “Brexit means Brexit” but nobody knows what that means. It’s a clever soundbite but a cowardly one. You can’t duck this responsibility. People want to know that their jobs and livelihoods are safe. That their pay and conditions won’t be worn away. They want to know what’s happening with immigration. Don’t play word games with our future, Mrs May.

It seems like every day brings new things we weren’t told in the referendum: visas to visit Europe now; imported inflation; fear and uncertainty for the EU citizens who’ve made their lives here; and a new European army that we’re not part of. Something the UK’s always previously blocked, but which we can’t block any more.


While Donald Trump wants the USA to “look at pulling out” of NATO. So, Mrs May, where does that leave the defensive alliance that’s kept Europe safe for 70 years? Well it leaves Labour reaffirming our commitment to NATO –  a socialist construct, as our Defence Spokesman, Clive Lewis, reminded us yesterday – and trying to persuade our EU colleagues to do the same. And having the same conversation with the Americans.

And what’s the PM’s answer to these intricate new uncertainties? “Brexit means Brexit”? Well, thanks. On Monday, John McDonnell and Emily Thornberry announced that in government Labour would replace EU regional funding beyond 2020, bringing vital certainty to so many voluntary sector and academic institutions worried about their survival. Labour clarity compared to Philip Hammond’s mealy-mouthed hedges and half-promises. Effective opposition, showing the Tories up for the charlatans they are.

If I’m honest, though, it hasn’t always been like that this summer. These haven’t been the best few months of my 30 years in the Labour Party. We can’t afford to keep doing this and, more importantly, the country the people we stand for, the millions the Tories leave behind every day, they can’t afford for us to keep doing this.

I’m sure there’ll be a general election soon. The more often Theresa May says it won’t happen, the more certain I am that it will. And, comrades, we need to be ready.

We need to stand together as one Labour movement, millions-strong and utterly united. Let’s get behind Jon Trickett as he masterminds our election campaign, let’s put our differences aside, link arms with our brothers and sisters in Labour, turn and face the Tories, and fight.

It’s time for Labour to get back to business. Time to get the band back together. We’ve got to get back on the phones, out on the doorstep (using our excellent new canvassing app), and start listening to voters again.

We owe the British people – our people – an alternative to a government that doesn’t care and a Prime Minster they didn’t vote for. You keep hearing that Labour can’t win, well we can, and we will. And I’ll tell you how we’re going to win: we’re going to win through local government because that’s how we always win.

Our councillors are the engine of Labour’s electoral machine. It’s Labour councilors all over the country who are our leaders and ambassadors in local communities. Our councillors and our trade unions: these are the rocks our movement’s built on. Always have been, always will be.

And only next May we’re going to fight tooth and nail to win councillors across our “Shire” counties and we are going to win Mayoral elections in Greater Manchester, the West Midlands and Liverpool City Region to match that spectacular victory won in London by Sadiq Khan.

What a champion he is. What an outstanding representative of our great national capital and our historic socialist party – still relevant, resonant, and winning elections in one of the most dynamic cities on earth. And in Bristol we have got marvellous Marvin, who you have just heard from. What a hero. And in our other great conurbations next May: Andy Burnham,

Siôn Simon and Steve Rotherham are going to follow Sadiq’s and Marvin’s example. And Carwyn in Wales. Reminding people what Labour government looks like – how innovative and radical we can be. How growth and prosperity, social justice and fairness all go hand in hand under Labour. And not just doing the right thing – not just compassion – but doing the thing right. Competence.

When we were in government, we got things done. We built hospitals and schools, recruited teachers and doctors and nurses; we fixed the economy and made it hum for a decade. But the shape of the challenges never stops changing, so the shape of our solutions must change too.

If you think the world’s changed a lot in the last 25 years, it’s nothing to what will happen in the next 25. New automated technologies are fusing with the internet, creating models of work and jobs we haven’t seen before. Daily we hear about machines doing things we thought only humans could do: driving cars, drafting contracts, even writing music.

It’s been called the ‘fourth industrial revolution:’ a new era of fast technology-driven change, which will transform the world we pass to our children. The potential’s enormous. It’s deep human progress. Huge swathes of things we can get done without doing them ourselves. It’s a good thing. But it certainly won’t feel like that if you’re the one whose job is shrinking and your pay along with it.

People whose grandparents were time-served trade unionists are now working 60 hour weeks, below the minimum wage, without any support from a union. It’s the dark side of the gig economy. If you think of the UK economy as a pie-chart, since 2009 the slice that goes to workers as wages, has fallen relative to the slice that goes to capital-owners as profit. Labour seems to be diminishing relative to capital. It’s there in Thomas Piketty’s blockbuster book.

In the next Labour government we must judge ourself on our ability to redraw that pie-chart. The problems of inequality aren’t new, but the solutions will need to be. So I’ve put together an independent commission on the future of work, to start influencing policy right now – from opposition.

It will be chaired by Helen Mountfield QC, joined by a world-class team including Naomi Climer, the first ever female President of the Institution of Engineering and Technology, Professor Michael Sandel, Jon Cruddas, Lord Jim Knight and many more. We’ll feed into Jon Trickett’s work on building a targeted Industrial Strategy and we’ll report back to you next year.

By definition, Labour is the party of work and we’re also the party of growth. We have to be. As John McDonnell so deftly set out in his speech yesterday: Labour is a market socialist party. We understand and work with the market but we don’t worship it.

The ideological, blinkered belief that markets are the answer to everything is the Tory’s big blindspot. We know that. But, of itself, the market’s not the problem either.

Some things markets are good at; others not, but they always need enlightened intervention to make them work. Unfettered markets oligopolise – that’s why all developed economies have extensive and stringent competition law.

And the lower-paid end of the labour market never produces, by itself, outcomes acceptable in a decent society. Without regulation, the labour market just squeezes the price of work down and down until the people at the bottom are crushed. That’s why we have a minimum wage. It’s why John McDonnell was so right yesterday that we need a real living wage that real people can afford to live on. It’s why we had an Agricultural Wages Board for 65 years till the Tories scrapped it. Why zero hours contracts are such a rapidly growing instrument of exploitation: because they’re allowed.

So come on Theresa May, if you actually care about a decent society, let’s have zero-hours contracts sorted now. Workers should have rights in a decent society. A proper contract, proper pay, decent conditions and the right to organise. And as John told the BBC yesterday, Labour will create “an entrepreneurial state that works with the wealth creators, the workers and the entrepreneurs”.

He understands  – as the Tories don’t – that you need both good government and a strong private sector to make a successful society. It’s just a fact. Look what happens when you get it right. The 11 years of Labour government between 1997 and 2008 were a completely unbroken period of economic growth. We made the economy work like never before or since; and we lifted half a million children out of poverty; and lifted a million pensioners out of poverty; and gave millions of low paid workers the decency of a national minimum wage; and introduced a radically redistributive system of tax credits; and winter fuel payments, free TV licences, free bus travel for older people.

More than 100 new hospitals, more than 200,000 new doctors, nurses, teachers, police officers, firefighters – bringing waiting lists down, school standards up, crime down. More than doubling our overseas aid budget. I could go on all afternoon about what we achieved during eleven years of economic growth.

From a position of national prosperity, we had the space to do good things and not just economically, but imaginatively; the nation as a whole bought in to social justice.  From the sunny uplands of increasing prosperity, social democratic government started to feel normal to the people of Britain.

I don’t know why we’ve been focusing on what was wrong with the Blair and Brown governments for the last six years, but trashing our own record is not the way to enhance our brand. We won’t win elections like that and we need to win elections.The Prime Minister could call one next week. Now is the time to be proud of our party. We have to believe we can win, and remember how much we achieve when we do.

In the past, big businesses were too easily cast as predators. We meant to say that we would stand up to the abuse of corporate power as the Tories never will. But we ended up sounding like we were anti-business; anti-prosperity; anti-success. We’re not and we never have been. Capitalism, comrades, is not the enemy. Money’s not the problem. Business isn’t bad. The real world is more complicated than that, as any practical trade unionist will tell you. Businesses are where people work. The private sector’s what generates the money to pay for our schools and hospitals.

We can afford the best health service in the world because we are one of the most prosperous countries in the world. That’s a fact and we forget it at our peril. And I don’t say this because it’s what wins elections, I say it because it is true. And people know that it’s true. And that’s why it wins elections. And the British people need that from us. We’re in the seventh year now of a Tory government and the last time that happened I looked round and it was seventeen years of Tory government.

I was 30 when we finally got back into power and I’d been seven years old when Labour had previously won a general election. I’ve never got over growing up under Thatcher and that’s not what I want for my children. I don’t want it for anyone’s children. We can’t let that happen again. We can’t fail today’s seven year olds. We can’t let them grow up in Tory schools, paying to go to Tory hospitals, working all hours for low pay in jobs the Tories have degraded.

We must be again what we are at our core: the Party of Britain. Of the real British values the Tories can never understand; of compassion and fairness alongside enterprise and fierce independence. This is no nation of ideologues. We know that and that’s our advantage over the Tories.

They’re blinded by money and power. It’s all they care about. And the old lady next door; and your neighbour’s children; and that migrant family working 60 hours a week and paying taxes: all these can go hang to the Tories. Other people don’t matter. Well that’s not the British way.

Yes, British people want a fair chance for themselves and their families. They want their hard work rewarded. But they also care what happens to the other children in the class, the other people at the bus stop, the others in the lengthening queues waiting months now for life-saving operations.

That is who the British people are. They look like us and its our job to show them, once again, that we’re the natural party for them. And we need to do that now. The election could well be upon us. So let’s give those Tories a surprise they’ll remember. Get out on the streets and start telling the story of Labour.

A great party of ordinary men and women, just like you, who can make the world better if you’ll give us the chance. We’ve done it before and we can do it again. Let’s win the election and set Britain free from the Tories.

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