Conference, as we all know, this is a year of important anniversaries in the history of the socialist movement – a movement always based on the unstoppable momentum of the masses, the incredible inspiration of courageous individuals and a core belief that injustice done to any of us is injustice done to all of us wherever we are in the world.
And in this year of anniversaries, we start by celebrating 150 years of the TUC: 150 years spent fighting for workers, not just in Britain but all across the globe, and stronger than ever today thanks to the leadership of Frances O’Grady, and thanks to a Labour leadership which now respects the representatives of our workers, rather than treating them with deliberate contempt.
And in this year of anniversaries, Conference, let’s recall it’s 130 years since a thin, humble, bearded socialist – it’s funny how those men can change the world – a Frenchman called Pierre De Geyter sat down and wrote a new melody for some old lyrics, and created the song we know as ‘The Internationale’, which inspired the working class of Europe and shook the ruling class, because it rejected war, rejected exploitation, and urged the human race to unite.
And of course, conference, it’s 100 years since the first women in our country won the right to vote and won the right to stand for Parliament. And don’t let anyone ever say that we were ‘given’ those rights, because the women who came before us weren’t given anything! They fought for those rights, they suffered for those rights, and some died for those rights. And everything we now enjoy was won for us by those brave, brilliant women.
But it’s also 100 years, Conference, since a young woman who never got the right to vote gave birth to her only son: a son who was refused permission to attend her funeral 50 years later because he was in a prison cell on Robben Island. Nosekeni Mandela never got to see her son freed. She never got to see him change his country and inspire the world. But he called her “the centre of his universe” so we owe it to her that he did.
And Conference, we also this year celebrate the anniversaries of some of Labour’s greatest achievements: 70 years since the Attlee Government created the NHS; 50 years since the Wilson Government helped create the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty; and 20 years, Conference, since Gordon Brown brought in the Tax Credits which the Tories are trying to dismantle; 20 years since Tony Blair secured the Good Friday Agreement which the Tories are trying to jeopardise; and 20 years since a Labour government started the Devolution Revolution which the Tories are trying to ignore as they hurtle towards a false choice between the ‘Chequers Deal’ and ‘No Deal’, either one of which will kill jobs and growth all across our country, and neither one of which we will accept.
But Conference, it is also a year of solemn anniversaries.
100 years since the end of the First World War, when young men from every corner of the human race united across Europe, Africa, The Middle East and Asia, not in the spirit of The Internationale, but – in the words of Keir Hardie – “to fill the horrid graves of war” in the name “of selfish and incompetent statesmen” who had failed to preserve peace
And it is 70 years too Conference, since the assassination of Gandhi and 50 years since Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy: three men of peace, three men of hope, all shot dead because they believed in an alternative to violence and hatred and war.
And there is a final anniversary we must pause and remember today. Because Conference, it was 80 years ago this very week that the International Brigades were disbanded after their brave struggle against fascism in Spain, and their heroic final stand at The Ebro. And we pay tribute today to those brave men and women, including one of this city’s greatest sons, the legendary Jack Jones, who were prepared to sacrifice their youth, their futures and their lives to try and stop the rise of fascism in Europe.
And we need that same spirit today, Conference, because make no mistake, those dangerous forces are on the rise again in our world on a pace and scale not seen since the days of the International Brigades.
And it is not just the scenes from Charlottesville to Stockholm of masked thugs marching under Neo-Nazi Banners. It is also – far more dangerously – the rise of leaders projecting a form of nationalism not defined by love of one’s country and one’s people, but by hatred towards everyone else; by the erosion of democracy and free speech; and by the demonisation of any minority, any religion, and indeed any media outlet deemed to be ‘the enemy’
And everywhere we see those governments today, we know they are contributing to the creation of a world which is the opposite of The Internationale’: a world where the human race is more divided, more drowning in hatred than at any time since the 1930s. And a world which is therefore utterly unable to deal with the problems that we all collectively face.
That is why our world leaders shrug their shoulders as the Climate Change crisis reaches the point of no return. That is why governments like ours continue to sell arms to Saudi Arabia even when it is proven that those weapons are being used to murder innocent children in Yemen. That is why the war in Syria too remains so intractable and destructive, with the dozen major countries involved not striving to stop it, but playing their own lethal power games with other peoples’ lives.
That is why North Korea can happily continue developing their bomb; Iran can keep Nazanin jailed for a third year; Myanmar and Cameroon can slaughter their own citizens at will; Russia can act with impunity not just in Syria but in Salisbury; and Donald Trump can tear up treaties it took other leaders years to agree
All because Conference, the world order has been turned into a global free-for-all, and the leadership to fix it is simply not there. But Conference, it’s here in this hall, it’s here on this stage, it’s here in Jeremy Corbyn. And we as the Labour Party in government must strive to lead the world in a different direction.
So with Nia Griffith’s leadership, we will support our forces, maintain 2 per cent spending on defence, invest more in peacekeeping, respect our international treaties, and never hesitate to defend ourselves, our allies, and our citizens abroad. But equally, we will never as a party go back to supporting illegal, aggressive wars of intervention with no plans for the aftermath, and no thought for the consequences, whether in terms of the innocent lives lost or the ungoverned spaces created within which terrorist groups can thrive.
And with Kate Osamor’s leadership, we will also rise to the challenge that Nelson Mandela set this Conference eighteen years ago when he told us that “one of Labour’s major political and moral tasks in the 21st century” was to “become once more the keepers of our brothers and sisters [all around] the world.”
And with Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, we must and will lead the world in promoting human rights, in reforming the arms trade, in pursuing an end to conflict, in supporting not demonising refugees, and in turning the promise of a nuclear-free world from an impossible dream to a concrete goal.
And with the leadership of every single one of us, Conference, we must also honour the memory of the International Brigades, and lead the fight against the forces of fascism, of racism, and prejudice, and anti-semitism. Because that is what we have always done both at home and abroad, and that is what we must always do.
We were there in Spain fighting Franco in 1936. We were there in Cable Street that same year fighting alongside the Jewish community to stop the Blackshirts. We were here in Liverpool a year later, when Oswald Mosley tried to speak in this great city and was forced out without saying a word. And we were there in the 1980s – I was there myself – when we marched against the National Front.
And let’s remember Conference, we won all those battles! We beat the Blackshirts, and the NF, and the BNP, and the EDL, and whatever they call themselves today, however they dress up their racial hatred, we are there in the same streets telling the fascists: ‘No Pasaran’.
And when we look back on all those battles, stretching back 80 years, I make a simple point, it hasn’t been thousands of Tories assembling in the streets to fight the forces of fascism. It’s been the men and women in this room. It’s been Jack Jones and Jeremy’s parents. It’s been Jon Lansman and Len McCluskey, Diane Abbott and Dawn Butler, Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell. So while I make a point of never disagreeing with John on anything, I disagree with him on this: we don’t need a new Anti-Nazi League, because the Anti-Nazi League is in this hall and on this stage.
But Conference, let me speak to you from the depths of my heart and my soul and say something I never thought I’d have to say in my lifetime as a Labour member and activist, and it is simply this: that if we want to root out fascism and racism and hatred from our world, and from our country, then we must start, we must start, with rooting it out of our own party.
We all support the Palestinian cause, we are all committed to recognise the Palestinian State, and I stand here with no hesitation when I condemn the Netanyahu government for its racist policies and its criminal actions against the Palestinian people.
But I know as well, and we must all acknowledge, that there are sickening individuals on the fringes of our movement, who use our legitimate support for Palestine as a cloak and a cover for their despicable hatred of Jewish people, and their desire to see Israel destroyed. Those people stand for everything that we have always stood against and they must be kicked out of our party the same way Oswald Mosley was kicked out of Liverpool.
And Conference, there is something more. Because if we truly want to realise the dream of The Internationale to unite the human race, and re-unite our country, then again we must start with uniting our own party, and ending the pointless conflicts which divide our movement, which poison our online debate, and which distract us from fighting the Tories.
Because as Gandhi said: “We but mirror the world so if we could change ourselves, the world would also change.” But if we can’t show the strength to change ourselves to change the way we behave to each other, how can we ever hope to change the country, and aspire to change the world?
But if we can do all that, just think what we’re capable of. Think what history we can create in government. Think what we can achieve that future Labour Conferences will remember as great anniversaries.
And I want to close with a story told by Dolores Gomez about the siege of Madrid in 1936, when every day she and her fellow citizens expected their streets to fall to the fascist forces surrounding the city. And sure enough, one day, they heard a huge army on the march
“Iron clad boots”, she said, “Men marching silent, severe, with rifles on their shoulders and bayonets fixed, making the earth tremble under their feet.” She and others crouched on balconies overlooking the street, rifles cocked and grenades ready to be thrown, just waiting for the order to attack.
But then she said, the army began to sing. “A thrill goes down the spines of the people, `Is this a dream?’ ask the women, sobbing.” But no, it was not. The men marching down the street had begun singing ‘The Internationale’, each in their own language – French, Italian, German, and English – the men of The International Brigades, all singing different words, but all with the same meaning, that when any of us is under attack from the forces of hatred, prejudice and exploitation, we are all under attack and we must unite and fight back together.
And if we can show that same unity today in our party, if we can root out prejudice and end division in our own ranks, then we can heal our divided country, we can unite our fractured world, and we can show that the greatest achievements of our socialist movement lie not in our past, but in our future. That is the kind of government we need for our country and that is the kind of Britain we need for our world.