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Tim Roache: Britain at a Crossroads

Tim Roache: Britain at a Crossroads

Thank you Faiza and the team at CLASS for assembling the most fantastic conference today. It’s a privilege to speak with you, not only as President of CLASS, but here this year as General Secretary of GMB. I began my work on 1st March which already seems like an age away. David Cameron was Prime Minister, Osborne ruled over the Treasury and most of the pundits expected us to stay in the European Union.

In March, the football fans among us wondered could Leicester really win the Premier League? Now we admire Gary Lineker not just for his enthusiasm for his former team, but for his determination to speak out for dignity and humanity to be shown to refugees. He’s kept his nerve in the face of the predictable hostility from the right wing press. Good on you Gary – we support you all the way.

Here at the CLASS Conference is an opportunity among friends to consider challenging policy issues facing working people while considering some of the solutions. This isn’t a talking shop, this is real life. Your contribution and participation in today’s event and the discussions that will follow is crucial because none of us knows as much as all of us.

We have to design the 21st century to meet our priorities and principles in the interests of the people. The transnational corporations show less loyalty than ever to the countries they operate in. We have to keep responding to that and adapt quickly. It’s not going to be easy. No-one else is going to do it for us. But every victory along the way encourages others and builds confidence that we can shape the future.

That’s why I was delighted and proud of GMB’s historic employment rights victory for Uber drivers in the UK. The support for our two drivers who stuck their head above the parapet, with the full support of their union has been fantastic. When you talk to people, they get it.

This isn’t an argument about technology or flexibility of working patterns. It is about rights and responsibilities, decency and dignity. The minimum wage, sick pay and holiday pay. The ability to have a holiday with your family or to not have to work when you are sick. These are things most of us take for granted but the drivers out there and the thousands of others employed in this way have been denied.

It’s about ensuring that the rights we have won over the last hundred years aren’t removed by the installation of an app. GMB is on the way to creating a 21st century union and yes, we embrace technology. We stand firm against exploitative business models, where workers meet the costs and shareholders laugh all the way to the bank. One or two of them aren’t laughing quite as loudly now.

We know Uber bosses won’t meet their obligations willingly and they have shown little humility or shame since the judgement. Please keep showing your support for our members, ensuring their rights are respected. Whether you use this firm or not, the Uber case affects us all.

Systematic false self-employment hasn’t just been an erosion of rights at work, but of taxes that could be used for the benefit of society. We all pick up the tab for the shortfalls – from the council-run care homes facing cuts and closure, to the lack of resources for schools, hospitals and services propped up by a stressed workforce stretched to breaking point.

We are not alone and GMB supports all other unions in similar struggles in the sectors they represent. We know how much is at stake, so please continue showing your public support and solidarity, but most of all take heart!

Almost everywhere you look is uncertainty whether at home or abroad. There are huge divisions within the Cabinet on priorities for Brexit which is why they are so loathe to come to Parliament and spell out even the most basic of priorities. Another Tory MP has quit and called a by-election over the Prime Minister’s approach and he probably won’t be the last. We have a government that is up Brexit Creek…and the paddle manufacturers have yet to receive the necessary assurances from ministers.

The government has made promises to Nissan’s executives and injected some much-needed confidence for the car industry. That just leaves the rest of the 30 million workers in Britain, other sectors including the many small and medium sized businesses who, let’s not forget, employ 60% of the UK’s workers. I’ve yet to receive written assurances offering cast-iron promises that workers won’t lose out either in current or future employment rights, there’s no plan for maintaining British jobs or living standards. That will be the focus of my union in the weeks and months ahead.

The Chancellor’s Autumn Statement on 23rd November is crucial. This is his first opportunity to send a clear signal to the country and set out the government’s domestic new economic priorities and intentions since the referendum. It is a huge moment and an opportunity to end the mistakes of the past and do something in national interest both for the short-term and long-term. How? Kill stone dead George Osborne’s austerity policies.

Remember, austerity was partly justified in 2010 by Osborne on the need to keep credit rating agencies happy and the confidence of the markets – an absurd and flawed basis at the time which resulted in sluggish recovery, greater insecurity and a decline in wages and the erosion of public services. Osborne’s justification was insincere and the motivation was ideological. After the referendum we are clearly well beyond what the ratings agencies may or may not think. That ship has sailed. Everything has changed following the referendum.

Of course the irony for Osborne and Cameron is that their austerity policies created many of the conditions in which the leave campaign prospered and finished off their careers. No-one would have batted an eye at the buses promising much-needed funds for the NHS if we believed it was already fully funded. Instead it is a struggle to get appointments, hospital services are closing, blue-light ambulances are missing their targets and the Health Secretary is driving doctors either out of the country or into early retirement.

Similarly with housing. If the government had invested in council house-building after the financial crash and recognised the opportunity as well as the need, then not only would we have shorter waiting lists and housing would not be viewed through the prism of migration. We’d also have many thousands more younger people employed working in trades. There’d have been more of a sense in the country that things could and would get better. The most damaging Tory cut of all has been the reduction in hope.

For many voters, voting to leave the European Union was presented as a solution to austerity. We had Tory MPs and leave campaigners promise that leaving the EU would mean an end to austerity. In April, John Redwood wrote the following in the Guardian:

“I want to end austerity. Voters want prosperity, not austerity…If we leave the EU we will regain control of our own money. We could increase existing budgets and end the upcoming reductions.”

The cynicism is staggering and sickening given everything this government has put the country through with those with the least, paying the highest price of all. Redwood is right about one thing – voters want prosperity not austerity. Yet on Monday next week, the Tory government will be ploughing ahead with an ever lower benefit cap which will affect 116,000 families by up to £6,000 a year according to the Chartered Institute of Housing. It will push 300,000 children closer to homelessness. It is cruel, it is distressing and it must stop.

The new Prime Minister has sacked George Osborne but the government has not yet ended his poisonous policies. If Philip Hammond wants to make any kind of mark at all then he must do so in his Autumn Statement. Bust this brutal benefit cap. End the bedroom tax. Stop the sanctions regime. Treat people with dignity. Or you and Theresa May will take personal responsibility for the ruin of all these lives.

That is the moral and political argument for ending austerity, but there is a practical one too. The government has said it wants to have an industrial strategy. They’ve even changed the name of a government department to reflect this. Yet continuing with even more austerity measures it will reduce the ingredients that are crucial for a functioning industrial strategy. We won’t just see reduced spending, but lower demand, fragile confidence, insufficient public investment and public services which invest in the people required, would continue to be undermined. Given the uncertainty of the coming years, why would a company invest in Britain if its own government is not prepared to?

Industrial strategy relies as much on the classroom as it does the boardroom. Throughout the 21st century, our young people are going to need to be trained and retrained countless times to meet challenges and create new opportunities. Jobs that don’t yet exist will come and go through the course of their working lives. Further education is going to be critical to all our economic health. Yet in the first five years of Tory-led government, adult skills funding didn’t increase – it was cut by 35%. Colleges have been pushed to the brink of collapse when they should have been flourishing and equipping us today and tomorrow.

I started talking about the importance of unions responding to the demands and needs of people in the 21st century. We’re up for that.

This Autumn statement is the test of whether the government gets it too. Politics is in a state of flux. Expectations have been raised. If Theresa May falls short then her honeymoon will come to a juddering halt. Our job is to be ready with the answers and the arguments. That is why today’s event is so important and timely.

Thank you.

Tim Roache

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