Below is the text of the maiden speech made by James Purnell in the House of Commons on 17th July 2001.
I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Romford (Mr. Rosindell). A couple of my hon. Friends have mistaken me for him in the Corridors, but I can tell that we shall probably not agree on a huge amount over the next few years. However, I pay tribute to him on his maiden speech for his humour, his conviction in his views and his obvious pride in his birth place and the town that he represents. I am sure that hon. Members will join me in wishing him the best for a successful parliamentary career.
I am extremely grateful to you, Sir Alan, for giving me the opportunity to make my maiden speech in this debate on Europe. I should like to start by saying a few thank yous: first, to members of the Stalybridge and Hyde Labour party for selecting me as their candidate, and, secondly, to the voters of Stalybridge and Hyde for returning me to Parliament; but most of all, on behalf of both of those groups, I thank Tom Pendry for his service to the constituency over 30 years.
It is common and traditional for Members in my position to pay tribute to their predecessors as good constituency MPs, but I doubt that many have had part of their constituency named after their predecessor. Tom Pendry square in Stalybridge will stand as a reminder of the exceptional work that he did for his constituents, who are now my constituents, and in particular of the leading role that he played in attracting £30 million of investment to the town to bring it back to life.
Members on both sides of the House will remember Tom not just for his humour and love of the good life but for his time as a Whip and as an Under-Secretary of State in the Northern Ireland Office. They will remember him for his dedication to issues associated with sport and tourism and for his participation in debates in the House, but in Stalybridge and Hyde, Tom will be remembered as a friend, an ally and a fighter.
Members will also remember that before coming to the House Tom was the colonial boxing champion, so, at least until the last general election campaign, he could lay claim to having the most famous right hook in the Chamber. Now that that title has passed on, I must report that Tom has also been overshadowed locally by Ricky Hatton from my constituency, who last week successfully defended his light-welterweight world title for the first time. I am sure that the House will join me in congratulating him and in passing on our best wishes to Tom for an active and successful future.
Other than Tom, Stalybridge and Hyde is probably best remembered politically as the venue for Hugh Gaitskell’s speech immediately after the 1952 Labour party conference at which Herbert Morrison and Hugh Dalton were voted off the national executive. Last weekend, I was speaking to Councillor Jim Wainwright, who picked Gaitskell up from the station that day. He told me that on the way to the conference he asked Gaitskell what he was going to speak about. Gaitskell replied that he was going to launch a counter-attack against the Bevanites and, in effect, accuse up to a sixth of them of being communist fellow travellers.
Councillor Wainwright stopped the car, turned to Gaitskell and told him in language that I could not possibly repeat in the House that he might as well get straight back on the train and go back to Leeds. Apparently the only way that Gaitskell could persuade Councillor Wainwright to drive on was by saying that he had already released his remarks to the press, so he might as well go ahead and make them. I am afraid that spin was alive even then.
I hope that I shall receive a milder reception this afternoon than Gaitskell received that day. In his diaries, he speaks of the speech being, for him, “unusually violent”. He adds: At the time, most of my friends were horrified. They thought I would lose a great deal of support. Most of the Labour party hated it, and hundreds of resolutions were sent in criticising him.
I hope also that my party will remember the lessons of those events. It is vital that in our second term we find a way to allow debate, discussion and even criticism within our party. However, there should be no place in our party for talk of counter-insurrections or coups; nor should we ever forget the importance of the unity of purpose that got us where we are today.
Apparently, after making his speech Gaitskell offered to return to my constituency later to make amends. The offer was politely refused, but if he were to return today he would barely recognise Stalybridge and Hyde. At the peak, there were more than 50 mills in my constituency; today, there are only two. More than a third of the population worked in those mills; today, barely a handful do. Most of the rest of the work force were employed in manufacturing in famous factories throughout the north-west; today, almost all of those factories have gone. The last to go was Gallagher’s, which closed in 1997; I think that more than a 1,000 jobs were lost in the chase for Government subsidies in Northern Ireland.
My constituency has known hard times and unemployment, but one thing that Gaitskell would find has not changed since his day is the people of Stalybridge and Hyde. They continue to pride themselves on being blunt, straightforward even; and they pride themselves on their self-reliance and hard work. The people of Stalybridge and Hyde, Dukinfield, Mossley and Longdendale refused to lie down and suffer the closures. They were determined to fight back, community by community, village by village, street by street, family by family, to overcome the closures and to attract new companies and jobs. I am delighted to be able to say that they succeeded. Stalybridge and Hyde are now thriving towns. At barely 3 per cent., the unemployment rate is less than the national average. Firms in my constituency export chemicals, plastics and industrial machinery all over the world. I am extremely proud of the fact that my constituency has one of the highest rates of manufacturing employment in the north-west.
If there is one image I should like to leave hon. Members with this afternoon, it is not of our beautiful countryside, although I believe that Werneth Low, the Longdendale valley and the hills around Mossley rival anywhere in the country; it is the people of Stalybridge and Hyde that I want the House to remember. Jay McLeod, a vicar in Micklehurst, is breathing new life into his community and using basketball to give young people an alternative to crime. The teachers in the sure start project in Hattersley are working to give the children of that neglected council estate at least the chance of an equal start in life. Barry Cooke, the retiring head teacher of Hyde technology school, showed by turning that school around that no matter the deprivation facing the local community, it is still possible to have high expectations of every child and match the results achieved in the rest of the country.
That is why I am so proud to represent Stalybridge and Hyde. The people of my constituency have shown that the best way to respond to change is not to suffer it, nor to resist it, but to welcome it and be in its vanguard so that we can shape it to our ends. We believe that every individual should have the chance to fulfil himself, but people can do so only through an active and enabling state. Those are the people for whom I will fight in my time in Parliament. I will fight for better public services and higher pay. Most of all, I will fight, fight and fight again so that Stalybridge and Hyde is given its fair share of resources, not out of pity or because of the problems we face but as a reward for our role as pioneers of change in the vanguard of Government policy.
I am especially pleased to speak in today’s debate on Europe. The most famous of Gaitskell’s other speeches was the last he made before his tragically early death. At the Labour party conference he spoke of his fear that going into Europe would mean the end of 1,000 years of history. I can tell from this afternoon’s debate that that view still has some supporters among Opposition Members, but during my time here I want to argue that it has been conclusively disproved. To people of my generation, the idea that Britain’s interests are fundamentally opposed to Europe’s is fanciful. The idea that Germany and France should be considered our enemies strikes them as beyond belief.
I am not unlike many members of my generation in having spent a lot of my life in Europe. When I was two, I moved with my parents to France, where I went to school. As the cliché goes, some of my best friends are French. That has never made me any less patriotic or less proud to be British, but it has made be proud to be European. I am proud that we have lived in peace on this continent for nearly 60 years. and proud that, in the treaty that we are debating, we have the opportunity to let in the states of eastern Europe and lift the iron curtain that descended on our continent after the second world war. Most of all, I am proud that on this continent we have the opportunity to build a society that can stand as an alternative role model to American capitalism, an alternative voice in diplomatic debates and an alternative source of power.
I remember going to Berlin the week that the wall came down. I have one burning memory from that trip of going to a church in east Berlin, which had been a centre of reform and resistance to the East German Government. I walked into the church where, all over the walls, people had pinned up bits of paper—poems, essays and letters—about their hopes for their new country. They were clear that they wanted to be free of authoritarian rule, but they were crystal clear that the acceptance of markets did not mean the acceptance of squalid public services, environmental damage and alienated communities. That is the challenge to which my generation must respond. We must live up to the hopes and aspirations expressed in that church, and build a Europe that is as dedicated to equality as it is to efficiency; a Europe that tries to build competitive markets, but also has successful public services and a fair welfare state to ensure that our prosperity is fairly distributed.
Those are my politics. An activist in my constituency bet me that I would not use the word “socialist” tonight. Well, I just have, although personally I have never been afraid to call myself a socialist. Members who know what I was doing before I came to the House will probably not be surprised if I do not plan to incur the wrath of the Whips regularly. Having said that, I make no apology for tempering my discipline with a dose of idealism. I believe in a politics of hope, courage and opportunity. My Government have a historic chance to show that courage to transform our public services and our relationship with Europe. I thank the voters of Stalybridge and Hyde for giving me a chance to play a part along the way.