John McDonnell – Speech to the 2009 PCS Conference Speech

Below is the text of the speech made by John McDonnell to the Public and Commercial Services Union in 2009.

Look, thanks, look I’ve got to be brief today, sorry about this, I can’t hang about, I’ve got to get back home, there’s a bloke coming round to do the moat, put up the pergola and tarmac the tennis courts.

I couldn’t get here the other day for Mark’s rally because I was dealing with the bill on prostitution in parliament, and I’ve learnt a lot, so when I heard that someone had claimed for floating their duck, I thought it was rhyming slang for some bizarre sexual practice.

You just can’t make this up can you? I was here two-years ago, can you remember? It was the day that I hadn’t got nominated to stand as leader of the Labour party.

I couldn’t get the nominations, one of the MPs told me that ‘I’d seen your manifesto and I’ve seen your proposal for public expenditure and I can’t nominate you, ‘cos we can’t trust you with the public finances’. You can’t trust this lot with the bloody tea money, let alone the public finances. Unbelievable isn’t it.

There is a deep sense of irony that when all this scandal on the expenses was beginning to break, parliament, MPs were voting through the welfare reform bill.

A welfare reform bill where people lose benefits, not for fiddling their benefits, not for fiddling at all but just because they simply don’t turn up for an interview.

A welfare reform bill, where we are forcing the long term unemployed to work, under workfair proposals where they will work for one pound seventy three an hour, contrast that with the £400 a month that some of the MPs have been spending, two-thousand pounds on plasma television screens, tens of thousands of pounds on mortgages which didn’t even exist.

Obscene? Of course it is. And no wonder people are pissed off quite honestly, no wonder. I’m angry as well ‘cos they bring us all down, they bring us all down.

You know the solution isn’t just about sacking the speaker, or a few corrupt, bent politicians, it’s just as the solution to the economic crisis isn’t just about getting rid of a few bankers.

The solution for this political crisis isn’t just about getting rid of a few MP’s, this is a systemic crisis, it’s a systemic failure.

And the political and economic crisis are not isolated, they’re two sides of the same corrupt, incompetent, unfair, and un-democratic system in which we live. An economic system which has created grotesque inequalities of wealth.

A society where 3 million children still live in poverty, whilst the rich pay less in proportion of their taxes than their own cleaners.

But also it’s a political system which has created vast inequalities of power, why, and we know, we see it everyday, a government permeated by big business.

Number 10 populated by advisors who have come from big business, lucrative jobs, or are going to lucrative jobs in big business.

Where we witness the farce of welfare reform, designed for this government by a venture capitalist, someone clearly expert in poverty and it’s experience.

Where former ministers who have awarded contracts to companies within months of standing down as ministers are employed as consultants by those companies and raking in anything in some instances from 50 and in some instances a 100 thousand pound a year.

And to be frank with you, where MPs will vote for what ever is put in front of them. What for? Just to be offered the chance of being a bag carrier to a bag carrier.

And this week, the reason I was in parliament yesterday is a classic example, we had before us a change in the standing orders of parliament, not as enlightening as the last debate I have to say, it was bringing forward a change in standing orders which would allow parliament to debate the new planning policies that the government is bringing forward on, nuclear power, on expansion of airports, on the major infrastructure projects that will design the future of our environment for generations.

And the government gave us the opportunity to allow us to debate those proposals. So I moved a simple amendment, that when we’ve debated them, can we have a vote. Labour MPs voted against even having a vote. We are voting ourselves virtually into irrelevancy, out of existence.

And yes, there are issues of morality, but I don’t think we should loose sight of the real morality that’s at stake in government and politics today.

Yes, be angry at the thousands of pounds that are spent on moats and mortgages and expensive meals. But I tell you, be angrier at the expenditure on immoral wars, Iraq and Afghanistan, and elsewhere, where thousands have died.

And yes, be angry at the expenditure of tax payers money on their extravagant lifestyles, but be even angrier at the extravagance of spending seventy-three billion pounds on trident when there are 3 million children, and 2 million pensioners still living in poverty.

And yes, be shocked at how much they consume, the food, the allowances, the TV’s and all the rest, but be more shocked that despite all we know now about climate change, despite all that we know, they are still promoting policies like airport expansion that will consume our planet.

And yes, be angry, at what they are spending on their second homes, but I tell you, be bloody angrier that after twelve years of a Labour government that hasn’t spent the money to house the 80,000 homeless families that we have in our country.

Be angry at that. And you know, when they wanted to keep their allowances private, I was angry at the privatisation of the jobs that we’ve seen over the last twelve years. The cuts in a 100,000 workers of this union.

But I say to you now, let’s not waste that anger, lets not waste it. Don’t waste that demand to change, otherwise this anger would be futile.

And if it’s diverted solely into stringing up a few MPs, enjoyable as that may be, if it is just diverted into that and the Tories are allowed to use it opportunistically to get them into power, or worse still if the revulsion of political practices of Labour and other MPs delivers people into the hands of the BNP, or even UKIP, that anger and that revulsion will be wasted.

I think our task, and the task of this union now is to link up with all those others who are angry as well.

Link up with all those others who want change, to channel the anger that people feel, to channel this exasperation into a demand for change, but real change this time.

We don’t want just a new parliament. That’s not what we are about. We want a new society. A society that’s based on rights. The rights at work, the right to a decent wage, the right to decent working conditions. The right to be safe at work, and yes to have a say and to be represented and yes, in many instances, to have that say through public and common ownership of our services.

A society that’s based upon rights at home. A right to a decent home. A right to a decent and clean environment, treatment when our children or members of our family are sick. Free education at all levels. A right to be free from poverty and a society which is fifth richest country in the world.

And yes, rights in our communities. Community institutions which have the power and resources at local level to tackle the problems that we experience. The need for homes, the need for safe areas, the need for a clean and green environment.

And yes, a local democracy that isn’t just about marking a ballot paper once every four years, but where we can all have a say and continual basis to change our society.

But it is also about the rights to control the destiny of our country. To own and democratically control our financial institutions so we can plan the future of our economy so that we no longer suffer the risk, the scourge of approaching 3 million unemployed.

To own and control our public services which are the foundations of any civilised society.

Ending the rip-offs and the privatisations. And yes, the right to a parliament elected that is truly representative of our country of all classes.

A government not appointed by patronage through the prime minister but elected by MPs and ministers elected directly by MPs.

And I say yes, as a Labour party member, a party which is not a degenerate bureaucracy, but a party where members take back the power to select their candidates to determine their policies and their programs and elect the party’s officers. And yes maybe just occasionally to elect the leader of the party in a democratic ballot.

This is just the start of this debate. The crisis can be exploited and will be exploited by the Tories and the fascists or we can harness the powerful surge of anger and revulsion amongst the people to determine that new society that we want. How do we go forward?

Well there’s various discussions and proposals. Some like Compass and the Guardian and others are calling for an immediate debate.

But that debate they want to contain within the political elite.

The political class, the very people who have corrupted our system so far. They are looking for some form of self-interested rotation within that elite. That sort of discussion, I think, is absolutely meaningless and ineffectual.

These are the very people who gave us Blair, supported Brown and now deifying Alan Johnson. All of them voted for the same wars, the same privatisations, the same attacks on our civil liberties and yes are now voting for policies that will cut our jobs, our services and yes even attack the poor on benefits.

And its interesting isn’t it. That there’s a consensus almost across all of them, all the political parties now. It’s a consensus that the economic crisis will be paid for by us, not them. Paid for by cuts in services, cuts in jobs, more unemployment, cuts in wages, and yes, and then they come for your pension.

We need now new voices. We need new political formations which reflect the breadth of the challenge to the status quo and to these vested interests. The government is talked about, and the prime minister is talked about convening conventions about parliamentary reform.

My view is that this change will only come about, not through parliament, not through MP’s, not through prime ministers but through us, through the people themselves, and I think PCS has a fundamental role working with others. We set up the trade union co-ordinating group to work with other unions.

Why don’t we invite other unions with us, to convene our own conventions? Invite other trade unionists from all unions, but also organisations that are campaigning in every policy field for the same changes we demand.

Why don’t we link up with all those others who are demanding fundamental change, the campaigners on climate change, the groups demanding decent incomes, decent pensions, the families who have got no homes, the asylum seekers, the most oppressed within our society, the cleaners on poverty wages that we mentioned earlier today in the debate.

The teachers, the public sector workers, the ones who are facing the cuts in privatisation, the people at the sharp end. They are the ones who should determine the new society that we want to create.

And it will mean new structures, new alliances, new formations, new methods for mobilising the demand for change. That’s what we need.

And you know it isn’t just about electoral politics. I tell you wherever necessary, wherever it is needed, it may mean direct action if parliament fails to give us a choice we have to relocate democracy from parliament onto the picket line and onto the streets.

If it comes to it, we have to seize the power again that the MPs themselves have so distorted. We can’t be spectators as party leaders and media commentators try to prop up this system which is so degenerate.

It’s time for us to seize the moment. Its time for us to seize the moment for change, and it takes courage, it takes courage to stand against the stream.

But if we don’t unite, if we don’t call upon others, if we don’t unite with all of those who are angry like us, all those who are coming under attack, all those who are entering into struggle already, if we don’t do that, they’ll simply reform the system, tidy up the expenses, give themselves all a wage rise, stuff their pockets yet again and carry on as before.

That’s not acceptable to our members, it shouldn’t be acceptable to us, so the demand we want now is change led by the people.

It’s about restoring democracy to the people themselves, it’s about getting rid of this degenerate bureaucratic system that we have, and restoring the rights that people demand.

Real rights to a decent home, a decent environment, a decent job, a decent education, a decent health service and security in the long term.

We as a union have always demonstrated that we are capable of leading that demand for change. From this conference, let’s put out that call to all those other unions and all those other organisations that want change like us to unite with us for this creation, not of a new parliament, but of new politics and a new society. That’s the challenge, let’s seize it. Solidarity.