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Households are being excluded from the benefits of growth

The text below is the opening keynote speech given by TUC General Secretary, Frances O'Grady, at Class's first national conference on 2 November, 2013 at Congress House. Please check against delivery - video to follow shortly.

Welcome to Congress House, the home of trade unionism.

And I’m sure that everyone here will want to join me in sending solidarity to the CWU, FBU, unions in Higher Education and everywhere where workers are organising for fairness at work.

I also want to send our solidarity and good wishes to the workforce at Grangemouth.

In a week when we’ve heard allegations that union leaders’ mobile phones were hacked by the Murdoch press, it’s disturbing to hear that same media group levelling accusations of intimidation against workers exercising the right to peaceful protest, and to see government politicians jump on that bandwagon.

Let’s be clear, trade unionists and sensible employers always prefer to conduct our talks around a bargaining table, than out on the streets.

And trade unionists advocate zero tolerance of bullying behaviour from any quarter.

But there is something deeply distasteful about seeing politicians, with a safe seat and inherited wealth, seize on allegations about the conduct of workers who are frightened they will lose their job and not be able to provide for their families.

And frankly, I won't  take any lessons on intimidation from a government that just this summer sent Home Office vans into our multi racial communities plastered with the threat 'Go Home'. If that's not intimidation, what is?

This is all symptomatic of a political economy where, as the public agree, the balance of power has swung far too far in favour of big business and against ordinary working people.

We’ve had the worst crash any of us have seen.

 

The tightest squeeze on our living standards in over a century, with TUC figures published today showing real disposable income having fallen by £500 and real wage cuts that average £30 a week.

Gross levels of inequality, with the rich getting richer and ordinary people getting debt.

It seems this government response is to consistently take the side of big vested interests against ordinary people.

Goldman Sachs negotiating its own tax bill.

Rip-off energy firms hiking bills by four times the rate of inflation.

Serco, Capita and the train companies scrounging off the taxpayer.

But part of the mythology that neoliberal politicians like to spin is that growing inequality of wealth and power is the inevitable consequence of globalisation, and workers have to like it or lump it.

That there is no alternative.

That governments are simply powerless to shape markets or to protect citizens against the markets and multinational corporate power.

From a different perspective, some on the left peddle that view too as a reason to give up on mainstream politics.

I disagree.

The mess we are in now is the direct consequence of political choices and decisions that were taken in the Thatcher-Reagan era.

Deregulation of the finance sector.

Disempowerment of local government to build council homes.

Weaker worker rights and a legal straitjacket for trade unions.

 

These policies were not written by the mythical invisible hand of the market.

They were decisions made in government, policies dreamed up by mere human beings.

And those policies can be changed and updated to meet the new challenges we face.

We can make different political choices, as many other countries that are more equal, that have stronger industries, less unemployment and better living standards than us, already do.

In any case, the illusion that neoliberal economics - with or without in-work benefits - could deliver winnings in which working people could all share has been well and truly trashed.

Whether it was the right to buy, Telling Sid, or cutting so called union barons down to size - the perceived benefits for one generation of voters have landed subsequent ones with a hefty bill.

Ordinary people now know that the free-market system has failed them.

Parents see their sons and daughters growing up worse off than they did.

Work really doesn't pay for the five million on less than the living wage.

And there is real anger about the banks, rail companies and energy cartels.

As polling shows, there is a genuine support for:

Tough regulation and reform of the financial system.

Public ownership of key national industries such as energy companies, railways and our Royal Mail.

And for tax justice so that the super-rich start paying their fair share.

But of course it's more complicated than that.

 

The public love Ed Miliband's promise to control the price of gas but they still need to be convinced that it can be delivered.

The public largely back the Government's reform of welfare benefits because they think too much money is going to the wrong people.

And too many accept the traditional scapegoating of migrant workers for pressure on public services, long housing waiting lists and under cutting of pay.

So I don't pretend it will be easy.

But I do think there is room for a new left populism that can transform the long-term political terrain.

For me, there are three key priorities.

First, living standards.

For sure we need to reverse some of the measures that boosted profit share at the expense of wage packets.

The abolition of the wages councils, for example.

But we will need to go further.

If we want to redistribute money, we have to redistribute power.

Britain's corporate governance system is predicated on the notion that shareholders are the best, in fact the only, stewards of the interests of a company.

But shares get traded at the flick of a switch. Over half of shares in British based businesses are held overseas. And too often, short term profit maximisation trumps long term company success.

The board room can be a game of musical chairs too.

 

In some companies it's rare to find top bosses staying long enough to walk the floor.

And some have become detached from the real pressures faced by their own workforce, not least because while real wages are now back where they were a decade ago, CEO pay has trebled.

There are practical policies that can deliver fairer pay.

In the short term, a higher minimum wage; a living wage; and rebuilding collective bargaining including by re inventing industry wages councils.

But in the longer term we need to focus on creating good, skilled well-paid jobs and give workers a stronger say in growing the kinds of sustainable businesses that can deliver them.

So the second priority must be an active industrial policy that all those with an interest have a chance to steer.

A plan to get investment flowing again and tackle Britain's long running problem of low productivity.

An intelligent strategy for jobs, skills, innovation and regional development.

And a state investment bank to support strategically important industries like automotive, pharmaceuticals, biotech, aerospace, the low-carbon technologies of tomorrow.

But this cannot be another excuse for corporate welfare without corporate responsibility.

And the best guarantee of that is to give workers the right to a voice in the future of the companies on which their livelihoods depend - up to and including at Board level - just as they do in the majority of countries in the European Union.
And third and finally, we need to be bold on the fundamental question of ownership.

Since the late 1970s, we’ve been subjected to the neoliberal mantra that private is good, public bad.

Demutualisation of building societies and banks.

The absurdity of our trains and power stations being nationalised by any other country bar ours.

And sell-offs at giveaway prices, as we saw with the privatisation of Royal Mail - otherwise known as selling tenners for a fiver.

No wonder successive governments have felt powerless in the face of globalisation when so many of our public assets have been sold off and any economic leverage surrendered.
It's time to turn the tide.

I am not saying we can do everything overnight.

But by using our time honoured values as our guide, we can build a new economy that delivers more equality, solidarity and democracy for all.

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