Speech by STUC General Secretary to Scottish Labour Party Conference

October 30th 2015


Thank you for inviting me to address your Conference. It is a pleasure to be here with you in Perth.

The first occasion I addressed a Scottish Labour conference was as a union delegate here in Perth. It was in the mid 1980’s when the Conference was held in the City Halls and the delegates had the benefit of tables on which to rest their papers and cans of irn-bru needed for revival purposes after the long nights of debate in the local hostelries.

Times have changed since then of course. Although on reflection many of the challenges we faced then from the Thatcher government – the savage cuts in public spending, the assault on public services, the disregard for the poor, the wilful neglect of key manufacturing industries, and the vicious attacks on trade unions and rights at work are writ large thirty years on. Cameron and Osborne don’t just bare the standard of Thatcherism they have raised it to new heights. Of course at least one thing is different, we have a Scottish Parliament, a longstanding demand of the STUC, adopted and fought for by Scottish Labour, and delivered by a Labour government.

And can I take this opportunity to offer my congratulations to Kezia and Alex on their election. Leading Labour in Scotland and in the Parliament today is arguably the most difficult job in British politics and, as I know you appreciate, will require every ounce of determination, commitment and vision you can muster and the total support of your Party.

Can I also offer my congratulations to Jeremy whom I’m looking forward to meeting and hearing this afternoon.

After the devastating disappointment of a Tory victory, all be it on only 24% of the eligible vote, and, of course, way below the Tories strike ballot thresholds, Jeremy’s election campaign struck a chord with Labour members and supporters across the country and offered hope of a real alternative to the economic idiocy of austerity and the vindictiveness of welfare cuts and persistent attacks on the welfare state.

It must be frustrating, after achieving such a substantial mandate from labour members, to hear some people continuing to carp from the sidelines.

As a trade unionist, I have been astonished by the outburst of some of those formerly in the leadership of the Labour Party and who, in the past, were the first to level accusations of disloyalty and to accuse the unions particularly of threatening the party’s electoral chances if their leadership and policy choices were questioned.

In falling over themselves to offer comment to the right wing press, it seems that they fail to recognise that they lost the argument – and lost it spectacularly – that there is a real desire for change, a change from what they had to offer.

But what disturbed me most was the call made by some for Jeremy to ensure that those who didn’t agree with him did not face intimidation. I thought it was despicable to imply that intimidation was a characteristic of the left which of course is the very same tactic of innuendo and untruths being used by the Tories through the Trade Union Bill to attack our right to peaceful picket.

Many of the policies advocated by Jeremy during his election campaign are ones shared by the STUC and it is important that we do not allow them to be painted as being somehow extremist. They are common sense policies that are only radical because they challenge a prevailing orthodoxy, an orthodoxy incidentally that has utterly failed working class communities.

It is not extreme to be against austerity. It is not extreme to be pro trade union. It is not extreme to believe that reducing inequality and economic competitiveness can be complementary and not competing objectives.

It is not extreme to believe in progressive taxation, or indeed, that if we want high quality public services we all might have to pay more tax.

It is certainly not extreme to question the morality or economic efficacy of spending £167 billion on Trident renewal.

Many of the policies we advocate are considered the norm elsewhere.

The French would think it extreme not to have a publicly owned and run rail system.

The Germans would think it extreme not to actively support its manufacturing sector or not to recognise the central role of unions and collective bargaining or require its companies to pay 30% corporation tax.

The Scandinavians would think it extreme not to have a high level of union membership (75% in Finland and Sweden) or to pay higher taxes for better public services.

And the Norwegians would think it extreme not to have a state owned oil company.

It is ironic that we can have someone else’s state owned company run our railway or operate our nuclear power stations but to advocate state ownership of transport, energy of other utilities is considered by some to be beyond the pale in the UK.

Politics must be about more than parroting the findings of focus groups. It must be about ideas, about values and about ideology. It must be about winning support for policies that might be not match the prevailing view, that might be unpopular with some groups of voters but which are supported by sound evidence.

The Scottish Economy

Colleagues, there is little doubt that the Scottish economy is facing troubling times.

Over the last year we have suffered from thousands of jobs losses offshore with worst to come as the Operators cut and run.

Tullis Russel, one of Scotland’s last paper mills, closed with the loss of over 400 jobs. Next year Longannet will go with hundreds of jobs lost at the plant and in the supply chain. And with Longannet, will go Scotland’s long held position as a net exporter of electricity.

I’m finding it increasingly frustrating attending taskforce meetings established to pick up the pieces after a closure has been announced and any prospect of saving the jobs has all but disappeared.

Yesterday, along with other union colleagues, I attended the first meeting of the steel task force in Lanarkshire.

And can I take this opportunity to commend the leadership shown by the local union conveners, Ross Clark and Derek Fearon of Community, in what is an immensely difficult and uncertain time for the workforce, their families and the Lanarkshire community.

Yesterday we made it absolutely clear from the outset that we were not there to talk about finding new jobs for redundant steel workers. We were there to save the Scottish steel industry and to find a new buyer for Dalzell and Clydebridge.

There is a proud history of steel production in Scotland. Times have changed and market conditions are challenging. But there is a long term future for these plants. Dalzell is the best plate mill in the UK. Both plants have a skilled workforce to stand comparison with any, and they produce steel of the highest quality.

We need vigorous action from the UK and Scottish governments working alongside the company, the workforce and the unions.

Every infrastructure project in Scotland and the UK must be scrutinised for its potential to use Scottish steel.

We need action on energy costs. We need action to reassure existing customers and to find new customers for Scottish steel.

Tata has said it will be a responsible seller and it should be held to that. And the Scottish Government and its agencies must pull out all the stops to find a responsible buyer willing to invest and with a vision to match that of the unions and the workforce.

Every ownership option must be explored, including the option of public ownership.

There are real prospects for the Scottish steel industry in the future if we can secure the Lanarkshire plants now.

The possibility of realising these prospects would be much better if we had a clear strategy for manufacturing. Steel produced in Scotland can be used across industry: in mining; in defence; in environmental protection; in renewables; in offshore fabrication; in heavy machinery manufacturing and in construction.

We urgently need a realistic, modern industrial strategy for Scotland. We need radical new steps to give growing companies access to the long term investment. We need more support for skills investment, a more strategic approach to procurement and a plan to encourage more companies and sectors to bring manufacturing back to Scotland.

Tax credits and fiscal charter

Colleagues, without doubt the biggest hurdle to sustainable recovery in Scotland is the Tories shameless, evidence-bereft approach to macroeconomic policy.

Recent debates over the fiscal charter and tax credits only serve to highlight their gratuitous, opportunistic approach to policy development.

The fiscal charter – which as the Shadow Chancellor correctly pointed out is supported by not a single economist of any credibility and profile – is simply political game playing. It has no economic rationale.

Cuts to tax credits show the Tories at their duplicitous and callous worst. No mention of cuts in their manifesto and total a disregard for the hurt they will inflict on the very “hard-working families” they profess to represent.

It is important we’re clear about what is at stake here: tax credits have contributed to a significant reduction in child poverty and helped to genuinely make work pay.

They are one of the few policy measures to have made a tangible difference in tackling income inequality. Cutting tax credits will simply compound the scandal of poverty in our country, a problem caused by a failure of politics as much as economics.

There is no evidence that tax credits have pushed down wages and there is no evidence that removing tax credits will cause wages to rise.

We know that the way to achieve a sustained increase in pay is through collective bargaining between unions and employers, the very thing that the Tories vindictive and unjustified Trade Union Bill seeks to undermine.

Trade Union Bill

And it is on the Trade Union Bill that I would like to conclude.

This Bill should alarm not just unions and their members but anyone concerned about democracy, human rights and civil liberties.

It will result in a level of state interference in the activities of a civil society organisation that goes way beyond what is reasonable in any democracy.

It will place our country at odds with international law and the conventions on freedom of speech, freedom of association and assembly and the right to strike.

These conventions exist to protect the democratic rights of workers to have a meaningful, collective voice in the workplace.

At the core of this is the right of workers to withdraw their labour in protest at the actions of their employer without the fear of the sack.

Without the ability to strike as a last resort, workers, will have no effective voice at work. They will be left with no alternative but to accept the decisions of the employer, whatever the consequences.

There will be no fairness or justice or democracy in the workplace.

The intention to make check off arrangement illegal for public sector employers and to restrict the amount of time public sector workplace reps can spend representing their members not only constitutes a disturbing degree of centralised dictate - it drives a coach and horses through both the spirit and intent of devolution, to Scotland, to Wales and to the English regions.

It is totally unacceptable that, a Minister, from an office in Westminster, and without any Parliamentary scrutiny, can determine how much Scottish Councils, the Scottish Government or the NHS in Scotland, can invest in ensuring effective industrial relations arrangements with its recognised unions.

And I want to thank those Labour Council Leaders and their colleagues for standing with us by committing to resist the implementation of any instructions issued from Westminster on facility time or check-off if this Bill becomes law.

I want to thank Ian Murray and also the Scottish Parliament Group for the support you have given us in opposing the Bill.

We need to defeat this Bill on behalf of workers across Britain. But let us also be clear, the provisions of this Bill intrude on devolved responsibilities to such an extent that not one clause should be applied to Scotland without the consent of the Scottish Parliament, a consent I am confident would not be forthcoming.


I began my speech by emphasising how important it is that we do not allow our views to be painted as being extremist just because they challenge the prevailing orthodoxy.

I want to end with a quote from the speech given by Keir Hardie on the twenty-first anniversary of the formation of the Independent Labour Party.

Reflecting on the time the ILP was formed: He said, ‘I may recall the fact that in those days, and for many years thereafter, it was tenaciously upheld by the public authorities, here and elsewhere, that it was an offence against laws of nature and ruinous to the State, for public authorities to provide food for starving children, or independent aid for the aged poor. Even safety regulations in mines and factories were taboo. They interfered with the ‘freedom of the individual’. As for such proposals as an eight-hour day, a minimum wage, the right to work, and municipal houses, any serious mention of such classed a man as a fool.’

He concluded by saying: ‘The past twenty-one years have been years of continuous progress, but we are only at the beginning. The emancipation of the worker has still to be achieved and just as the ILP in the past has given a good, straight lead, so shall the ILP in the future, through good report and through ill, pursue the even tenor of its way, until the sunshine of Socialism and human freedom break forth upon our land.’

Colleagues, it has been a pleasure to once again have the opportunity to address a Scottish Labour Party Conference.


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