Tom Watson: Speech to Scottish Labour Party Conference 2017

Hello everyone, thank you for having me. I’m so pleased to be here in Perth. But I am going to start my speech today by saying something controversial. 

I know not everyone agrees with me on this, but I strongly believe that when someone has so recently defied the bookmakers and romped home to an historic, unexpected victory they have the right to see their vision through. 

You shouldn't get rid of them just because results aren't going your way.

But you're not here to listen to me talk about Claudio Ranieri. 

So let me say this instead.

It’s an honour to join Scottish Labour at it’s annual gathering. To have the immense privilege of talking to you today. And to have the chance to express my support for Kezia Dugdale.

Kez has shown remarkable strength at what is undoubtedly a challenging time for the Scottish Labour Party.

She stood for the leadership after a crushing election defeat in 2015, standing up when it would have been easier to stand back.

And she understood that leadership is about understanding not just the victories but also the defeats. For only then can a leader understand what needs to change. 

That’s why it was Kezia who finally delivered autonomy for the Scottish Labour Party - first mooted in 2010, with the final rule changes passed today.

It was Kezia who delivered Scottish representation on the NEC.

And it is Kezia who is offering strong, principled opposition to the SNP in Holyrood - calling out the SNP and the Greens on their sham budget deal, and setting out a bold tax policy that uses the Scottish Government's tax-raising powers to invest in public services.

I am looking forward to working with her as she leads the way on the future constitutional model for the United Kingdom, on a new Act of Union that will reshape our country and reaffirm the partnership between our nations.

Now. I want to be clear about this week's by-elections. I'm not going to sugar coat the results. You deserve better than that. 

I'm glad we won in Stoke. Gareth Snell will be a great MP, and sending Paul Nuttall back home with his tail between his legs is exactly what he deserved. But I'm hugely disappointed that Gillian Troughton won't be joining him in Parliament as the MP for Copeland.

That means that all of us with leadership roles in the Labour Party need to have a long, hard look at ourselves and what's not working.

Seven years into a Tory government, we shouldn't be facing questions about whether we can retain the seats we already hold.

Our job at the next election is to gain over 100 seats. Keeping what we have is supposed to be the easy bit.

Here in Scotland, you've seen what happens when Labour's long-term supporters stop voting Labour. We can't afford to have that happen in England too.

I’ve said it a lot recently. This is not the time for a leadership election. That issue was settled last year. But we have to do better. We cannot sustain this level of distance from the electorate, from our natural supporters.

So things have to change.

We have to make it clear that we are on the side of people who create prosperity as well as those who need the security of good jobs. And we have to find a way to deal with the issues that divide us.

I know most of you will have voted Remain.

I voted Remain. 

Two thirds of Labour supporters voted to Remain.

But we are seeking to govern the whole country, this still-United Kingdom, and the majority of voters in this country voted to leave. 

The EU result has catapulted us into a hugely complex situation in which we have to fight the least rational elements of the Tory right to make sure we protect British interests and British workers.

Where we have to make sure we get the best deal for Scotland and the other devolved nations.

Make it clear to Theresa May that they are her equal partners in this, not her vassals. And that is what we will continue to do.

The local elections are a couple of months away.

I know every one of us in this room will have been out campaigning – and that you’ll be out again, and again and again, in the run up to May. So for doing that, getting out there, you have my admiration and thanks. 

Thank you for your commitment to the party and to your communities. Thank you for your commitment to fighting for every Labour vote, and to taking on the SNP.

I get frustrated on your behalf when some people – mostly, it must be said, in England – argue that the solution to our current difficulties lies in a "progressive alliance".

I can see how, on the surface, it’s tempting. How it feels like a shortcut to power.

There are obviously some areas where we agree with some other parties, so it's easy to imagine that we're all on the same side really.

But I’ve heard these arguments before. I was around in the eighties, when all the talk was of a "rainbow alliance". So trust me, I know what I’m saying, when I say the idea of a progressive alliance is an electoral dead end.

The last general election should have made that absolutely obvious to us all. Remember those awful posters, Ed Miliband in Alex Salmond’s pocket?

They were brutal, they were unfair, but they were effective. The Tories demonised the idea of a progressive alliance, of Labour propped up by the SNP – and used it as an electoral stick to beat us with.

Telling the people of Scotland that they didn’t need to vote Labour to get a Labour government, and telling the people of England that a vote for the Labour Party was a vote for the SNP. 

The mere suggestion of a progressive alliance is an absolute gift to the right. 

To win elections we need to get people to vote Labour – and you don’t persuade people to vote Labour by telling them they can get a Labour government without voting Labour.

And we know it's wrong in principle too. Because the parties that supporters of the progressive alliance would hook us up with – are actually no such thing. 

They might think we’ve forgotten, but the Lib Dems spent five years propping up a vicious Tory government. Enabling the Bedroom tax, cuts to public services, tax cuts for millionaires while millions saw their living standards stagnate.

That's not progressive.

The Greens explicitly oppose creating the jobs and economic growth that working people depend on. In fact, under the mistaken belief it’s the only way to save the environment, they argue for negative growth – otherwise known as a recession.

That's not progressive.

And here in Scotland you know better than anyone that nationalism isn't a progressive force.

The SNP are a party that willingly continues to impose austerity on local councils in Scotland. That is happy to preside over a planned one billion pound cut to the NHS over the next four years.

That has seen the attainment gap between children from the richest and poorest backgrounds widen ever-further.

Nicola Sturgeon claimed education would be the defining priority of her government, and yet the SNP have joined with the Tories not just once but four times to vote against introducing a 50p top rate of tax to invest in education.

They may pose as a progressive, anti-austerity party, but it’s clear they are anything but.

And even if we wanted to join them, the maths just don’t add up. In the latest UK-wide poll the Tories have an 18 point lead over us. The other so-called progressive parties have a mere 16 points between them.

That means a progressive alliance isn’t a short-cut to power; it's a road to nowhere.

The only way to win against the Tories and the SNP is the only way there's ever been to win: to take votes out of their column and put them in ours.

That latest opinion poll suggests that across the UK we’re five and half million votes behind the Tories. That’s a lot of votes. 

We pride ourselves on being the biggest mass-membership political party in Europe, with more than half a million members. That’s great.

But five and a half million votes is ten Labour Parties. So we have to reach out.

We've won in our own right before by appealing across the country, to Tories and SNP voters – to Lib Dems, UKIP supporters and Greens. By persuading them to change their minds and switch their votes. 

We did it by uniting people from different backgrounds.

By being unafraid to talk about prosperity, and about supporting business.

By being broad not narrow.  

By offering leadership and vision.

And we can do it again. 

It’s the only way we’ll win again. 

It’s the only way we should want to win again.

We've already got a progressive alliance: it's called the Labour Party.

I mentioned Brexit. I said we need to find a way to move on from the bitterness and division the campaign and eventual result exposed. There is a natural way for the Labour party to do that. Devolution.

We are the party of devolution – power is currently flowing out of Westminster to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland because of a process we began, back in 1997.

I think the Independence referendum was won because a clear majority of people in Scotland could see they could have the best of both worlds – devolution of power, real home rule, combined with membership of a larger union.

But we lost the referendum across the wider UK because power hasn’t been devolved in England in the same way.  

The Leave campaign said and did many deeply wrong and outrageous things, but they were absolutely right when they talked about the overwhelming powerlessness felt by so many.

People voted to take back control, because they didn't feel they had control. But taking back control has to be meaningful.

All of us here know that the remedy for anger and alienation in communities that feel ignored and left behind is not to take the power from unelected bureaucrats in Brussels and hand it over to unelected bureaucrats in Westminster.

It’s to devolve it. It’s to give people the ability to make meaningful choices over their public services, their schools, their housing, social care – all aspects of their lives.

It’s to give them an investment in the society they currently don’t feel part of.

It’s my view that central government should only be charged with doing what local government cannot.

Power should reside at the level best able to effect change. The political argument is as valid in England as it is in Scotland. We have to start talking about radical devolution of power to England’s towns and cities.

In fact, I’m not sure we’ll ever win back votes in Scotland until people are reassured about our commitment to reducing the influence of Westminster.

That’s why I welcome the motion passed here yesterday, calling for a People's Constitutional Convention not just to set out what powers should return to the devolved nations following Brexit, but what powers should be given to the English regions rather than Westminster.

A new act of union would let us redefine our country while keeping it together, allow each one of us more say whilst sheltering all of us behind our greater whole.

I believe this country is Stronger Together. I know this Labour party is.

And I know this country desperately needs a strong Labour party.

- to defend it from incendiary nationalism

- to protect its people and their public services from the depredations of conservatism 

- to fight for the rights and protections that reckless brexiteers would happily give away

If we don't, no one else will. 

So we cannot let our current trials break us apart, make us less than what we are - the greatest political force for change this country has ever seen, the best hope for a better society this country will ever have. 

In Tory Britain whole regions and nations are being left behind.

Especially those regions like mine, the Midlands, and nations like yours, Scotland, which helped to make the country wealthy in the industrial revolution and beyond - but have been neglected by Tory Britain for too long.

All of us - Scotland, Wales, the Midlands, the North of England, have suffered unacceptable levels of long term unemployment.

We've all seen the manufacturing and mining go. And today, we are all trying to chart our way in the new interconnected but insecure global economy.

In all parts of the UK people see  globalisation as a runaway train that needs to be brought under control in the public interest.  

Without fresh investment, an economy becomes increasingly unproductive. 

Our research facilities, our universities and colleges and schools, our public services have been cut to the bone by Tory austerity.

And yet even as there are rising inequalities between north and south, the Tories cling to the most centralised system of government in the Western world.

Too many decisions about our communities are made in Whitehall, Westminster and the Square Mile, by people who don’t show enough concern for regions that are more remote.

As a country, we cannot go on in the same old way.

In the Brexit vote, large numbers of people in the regions concluded that politics isn’t working for them. And so we must now take the opportunity to rethink how we can run our country. And that’s where Scotland has led the way.

It was the Labour Party that set up the Scottish Constitutional Convention in 1989 to put the case for a Scottish Parliament.

It was a Labour Government that put the Scottish Parliament into law with the  Scotland Act.  

It was a Labour minister, Donald Dewar, who became Scotland’s First Minister and steered  Parliament through its first year - making social justice his priority and negotiating the best financial settlement Scotland had ever had. 

It was a Labour government that extended its powers by accepting the Calman Commission proposals in 2009. 

And today it is Labour in Scotland, led by Kezia Dugdale, that is proposing new powers for the Parliament.

She rightly says Scotland should not tie its hands to the SNP, who want Scotland in Europe but out of Britain or the Conservatives who want Scotland in Britain but out of Europe. Scottish Labour says that instead of  repatriating powers from Brussels to Westminster they should be handed to the nations and regions.

And so, it is Labour, from Scotland, that has led the way for the last twenty-five years in reframing  the British constitution – and it is doing so again today.

And I want us to join together to rewrite the British constitution for the new era in which we find ourselves. 

In this post Brexit world I favour devolution all round. 

I favour the regions and nations taking from Brussels powers over Agriculture and Fisheries, regional policy, social Funds, environmental protection. And sharing control of the four billion pounds worth of spending by Europe in the UK.

These are powers the Tories want to repatriate to London.

I say let’s repatriate these powers to the nations and regions of our country – to be exercised on the ground here in Scotland with an extra £800m added to the Scottish parliament budget. And in Wales, Northern Ireland, London, Yorkshire the North East and North West and the Midlands -  away from Westminster and Whitehall.

And we should go much further than this.

We can unite together on a radical programme of constitutional change for the regions and nations of the UK. Not everyone forced to go at the same pace; that would be against the spirit of local control of  decision making.

But everyone benefiting from less centralisation and less Whitehall control and benefiting from more devolution and more power to the people.  

More power to communities North of London.

The reason we need to act together is that we have so much in common.

I believe that regions and nations can work together to force the pace of constitutional change.

And the idea is not just shared by this Conference, but by Labour's Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones,  Labour’s mayoral candidates, our excellent London mayor Sadiq Khan and Labour local authorities. 

They all support the call to set up a constitutional convention and I want Scotland to be a leading part of that.

We should bring together representatives from local government, business, the trades unions, faith groups and NGOs  from every region and nation.

That convention should propose the constitution we want for the new Britain. And let’s remember, it’s not a talking shop about arid constitutional issues

It’s about power to the people. Economic power, financial power, political power.

And it’s about how we can unleash the economic potential of every part of the UK. how we can transfer power from the centre to the regions and nations. How we can ensure a fair allocation of resources based on need.

And that means power to all of us - here in Scotland, in the North East, the North West, Yorkshire, Wales - power to the north.

Once again, Scotland shaping the future.

Not because Scotland is leaving the UK but because Scotland is leading the UK. 

Have a great conference.

Thank you.