Tom Watson: Speech to USDAW Annual Delegate Meeting 2017

Tom Watson's speech to the USDAW Annual Conference 2017. 

Hullo everyone, thank you for coming. It’s a pleasure to be here in Blackpool today.

And I want to thank you personally, John, for your invitation, and more importantly for your leadership of this great union. At a time when union membership is declining, Usdaw has grown by over 100,000 in the last decade. In a sector with high staff turnover, where you need to recruit just to stand still, you recruited over 79,000 members last year.

And you managed that without introducing a £3 “registered supporters” category.

At a time when all unions need to stay in touch with their membership, you've made sure that Usdaw has kept focused on the issues that matter to the people you represent – wages and in-work benefits, workplace rights, supporting parents and carers. Bread-and-butter issues, not pie in the sky.

And I’d like to thank you for the campaigning work that you do. Campaigns like Keep Sunday Special, Safe Journey and Freedom from Fear help improve the lot of ordinary working people and their families across the board.

I’m proud that one of my first questions to Tony Blair at Prime Minister’s Questions, back when I was first elected as an MP, was about Freedom from Fear. I’ve been a supporter ever since.

Shop workers are physically and verbally threatened and abused every minute of every day – as I’m sure you know all too well.

Encouraging employers to treat this issue seriously and giving workers the confidence to speak out about it is incredibly important.

We should never see abuse or intimidation as just another part of the job. I didn’t need to spend two years as Labour’s Deputy Leader to understand that...although it certainly helped.

Keep Sunday Special is another cause close to my heart. It’s not about forcing people to go to church. It’s about recognising there’s something important about giving working people and their families one day a week that isn’t the same as all the others. Sunday has already been opened up to too many claims on workers’ time. Thank you for the work you do to protect it.

I also want to thank those of you here who are Labour members and supporters.

Usdaw's role as a Labour-affiliated union could not be more important. You've never ever lost sight of the fact that your members need a Labour government, and that means that your members need a Labour Party with the widest possible appeal. And I make no apology, during this general election campaign, for making a party political speech.

I know over the next five weeks you will be out knocking on doors, delivering leaflets, talking to people on the street and on the phone, making the case for Labour values and Labour MPs. We would be nowhere without you. Thank you for your time and energy. I look forward to seeing you on the campaign trail.

And for those of you who aren’t Labour supporters, those of you who are still making up your mind, I want to thank you in advance for giving me a hearing today.

Because here we are again. The third national vote in two years.

I’ve said consistently that I expected Theresa May to call an early election. But I also said that she seemed to be a woman of integrity, who wanted to do what she promised – and she promised there wouldn’t be an early election. So since that announcement outside Downing Street I’ve felt half vindicated, half not. 

Actually, what I’ve mostly felt is angry. Theresa May broke her word. She has only been Prime Minister for nine months but she’s ruled out an early election on EIGHT occasions. That tells you all you need to know about how worthless Tory promises really are.

Theresa May was meant to be the Tory leader who tells it like it is. A safe pair of hands. Someone to steady the ship. A Prime Minister who puts the country’s interests above those of her own party.

Now she’s been exposed for what she really is: a political opportunist who’s called an election she said she wouldn’t have because she thinks she can increase her narrow majority in Parliament. We need to make her regret that decision.

Mrs May told us she would always place the national interest before that of her own party. But her decision to call an election on June 8th – to plunge us into another divisive national conflict whilst in the middle of hugely important Brexit negotiations – that isn’t based on the national interest.

Mrs May claims this election is necessary because there’s “division” at Westminster. She seems not to understand – or more worryingly, not to care – that disagreement, dissent and criticism are fundamental parts of democracy.

That’s why the House of Commons has benches on both sides. That’s why we have debates there.

That’s why Labour’s MPs have the job title of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition. So when they hold this government to account, it isn’t sabotage. When they campaign against unfair policies like tax credit cuts and grammar schools, they aren’t enemies of the state. When shadow ministers ask difficult questions, they aren’t traitors. They are providing a necessary safeguard for the ordinary people of this country.

Debate in Westminster doesn’t challenge Mrs May’s ability to make a success of Brexit – all it challenges is her ability to have everything her own way, her ability to force the country into a hard, costly, chaotic crash out of Europe. It just means she has to work harder to find a deal that works for everyone.

She isn’t just trying to avoid scrutiny in the House of Commons. She’s trying to dodge scrutiny on the campaign trail too. Refusing a TV debate against Jeremy Corbyn and the other party leaders. Visiting a workplace in Leeds – but only once all the actual workers have packed up and gone home for the night.

Filmed on the campaign trail in Wales – but only speaking to Conservative Party activists, not members of the public. And on the few occasions she does let someone ask her a question, just repeating the same words over and over again.

A lot of people are worried about the risk of robots taking their jobs. I fear with this Prime Minister it’s already happened.

Mind you, not everyone in the Conservative Party is keeping their mouth shut. Last week Boris Johnson came up with a colourful insult to sling at Jeremy Corbyn – and it managed to lead all the news bulletins.

So in the interests of balance, let me just say this:

Boris Johnson is a cack-handed, cheese-headed fopdoodle, with a talent for slummocking about, who would do less damage to Britain's reputation in the world if Theresa May sacked him as foreign secretary and replaced him with a souvenir paperweight.

When we require diplomacy, Boris Johnson sows discord. At a time when we need a serious-minded national representative to deal skilfully with some of the most complex problems our country faces, Boris Johnson falls back on bluster.

And how can any of us trust a man who claimed our NHS would get an extra 350 million pounds a week if we left the EU? I expect to see that on the Six O’Clock news tonight.

You can’t judge the Tories by what they say. Because we know they’ll say anything to get your vote. Judge them by what they do. Judge any party by what it does.

This is what ONE of the parties has done for working people like Usdaw members and their families. See if you can guess which party. 

  • The national minimum wage
  • Tax credits to support working families on lower incomes
  • The right to 28 days paid holiday
  • The right not to work excessive hours
  • The right to actually take a break in the working day
  • Maternity and paternity leave
  • Equal pay for equal work
  • Rights for carers
  • Rights for agency workers
  • The legal right to union representation
  • Schemes to tackle workplace bullying.
  • Increased protection for whistleblowers
  • Further protection against discrimination
  • Increased compensation for unfair dismissal

Those are the actions of successive Labour governments. Of course they are.

Labour has consistently fought for safer conditions, higher wages, protections for workers. That's Labour's brand. It’s who we are. It’s what we do. Whoever the leader is, whoever its MPs are, you know they will be working to improve the situation of low paid working people.

The Tories opposed nearly every one of those advances. They voted against them, they campaigned against them, and in government they’ve tried to reverse some of them.

The Tories astonish me sometimes. They’re like dropped toast. They always come down on the wrong side.

They’re plunging low paid families into poverty by slashing the tax credits that make up for stagnating wages. Workers are already working longer for less – yet the Tories tried to deregulate Sunday trading, eating into the last bit of protected time some workers have with their families.

They’ve undermined the ability of Trade Unions to support their members, and attacked the right to strike. They’ve cut the Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme – reducing the money awarded to workers attacked in the workplace.

And their introduction of employment tribunal fees has seen cases fall by 80 percent. That isn’t because the workplace just got magically fairer. Workers are being denied access to justice.

Just last week, new figures revealed the damage that will be done to working people’s living standards under proposed Tory changes, how cuts to in-work support will leave families with children an average of £2,500 pounds a year worse off.

And yet Theresa May felt able to stand on the steps of Downing Street and claim to be driven by the interests of the those working around the clock, those with no job security, those who are “Just About Managing” – the so-called JAMs.

How dare she.

We’ve had seven years of the Tories in charge. It’s been frustrating, it’s been heartbreaking. Opposition is, as John Hannett has noted, a cold place. You don’t set the agenda. But that doesn’t mean we’ve stood by and done nothing.

Labour has forced the government to retreat on some of its most ruthless, most regressive policies. I’m so proud of individual Labour MPs like Angela Eagle, Steve Reed, and Kevin Brennan, who worked with USDAW to ensure that Sunday is kept special, and that workers don’t have to worry about being made to work unlimited hours.

MPs like Jack Dromey, who worked so hard and harassed ministers so much over the Trade Union Bill they ended up agreeing with him and making his case for him to Number 10.

MPs like David Hanson and Kate Green, who sit on the Justice Committee, and who took insurance companies apart for wanting to cut claims for workplace accidents.

Like Barbara Keeley, Carolyn Harris and Tracy Brabin who have worked so hard on behalf of WASPI women who are losing out on their pension entitlements.

Like Seema Malhotra, Pat McFadden and the Labour members of the DWP Select Committee who exposed the impact on families of Tory tax credit cuts.

Or like Andrew Smith, MP for Oxford East, who is sadly stepping down this year. Andrew was an Usdaw activist before he was elected, and spent 20 years as chair of the Usdaw MPs group. His presence will be missed.

They are why I’m here today. To ask you for your help, for your vote, on behalf of passionate, campaigning, dedicated Labour MPs like Carolyn and Tracy, like Jack, Angela, Seema.

We’ve heard a lot of talk about the qualities you need in a prime minister. Theresa May doesn’t think that the ability to answer questions is one of them. But sometimes the most important question isn’t what makes the best PM. It’s who makes the best MP.

I want to ask you to think about this. Who do you think is going to work harder for you?

A Labour MP, rooted in your local community, with the interests of working people at their heart – an MP who cares about those on low pay, those juggling jobs, people who are worried about the cost of childcare, about losing their tax credits, about ballooning class sizes at the local school and what might happen if they have to go to the local hospital... 

Or a Tory candidate who wants to get elected simply to push Theresa May’s right wing agenda through?

If you’ve got a problem with a landlord, or benefit payment that you need your MP to take up, who would you rather have representing you?

If you’ve got a campaign against government policy – like a hospital closure, or shoddy flood defences – who do you think is most likely to take it up?

And do you honestly think a Tory is going to stand up for workers in the same way a Labour MP will?

Not when they refuse to guarantee workers’ rights after Brexit. Not when Boris Johnson calls the weight of EU employment regulation “back-breaking”, or Michael Gove tells businesses to go ahead and start drawing up a list of the protections they want to abolish.

Mrs May tells us this election is all about Brexit.

But whether you voted to Leave or Remain, you did not vote for your rights to be scrapped, you did not vote to be exploited – or further exploited – at work, you did not vote to work unlimited hours, to be discriminated against, or to be put in danger.

You did not vote in the EU referendum so that the Conservative Party could use Brexit as cover to repeal rights delivered by Labour – all in order to let the boss class boom.

A Labour government wouldn’t just protect the rights workers already have – it will give them new ones.

Working people need a Labour government that will raise the minimum wage to £10, ban exploitative zero hours contracts, repeal the Tories’ Trade Union Act, and guarantee the right of trade unions like Usdaw to access workplaces and speak to members and potential members.

They need a Labour government that will strengthen protections for women against unfair redundancy during pregnancy and maternity leave, and double paid paternity leave.

And four new bank holidays would be good news for workers too.

Theresa May thinks she can make this election into a single issue vote.

Well, I’m not a single issue voter. And I don’t think you are either.

A vote for Labour isn’t just a vote for a properly funded NHS, a £10 minimum wage, more affordable housing, 10,000 more police officers.

It’s a vote against the Conservative Party having a blank cheque to do whatever they damn well like.

The landslide victory May demands will see the Tory party off to the races. The brakes will be off, the country will be out of control. 

Margaret Thatcher had the kind of majority Theresa May wants. She knew all about unfettered government.

Her administration crushed workers' rights. It let Britain's industrial heartlands wither away, whilst doing nothing to replace the livelihoods lost there. It introduced the poll tax.

Labour needs the maximum number of MPs in Parliament if we’re going to stand up for you, stand up for the many, stand up to the few.  

Don’t give Mrs May what she wants. Vote Labour on June 8th.