Charles Kennedy – 2002 Speech to the TUC


Below is the text of a speech made by the then Leader of the Liberal Democrats, Charles Kennedy, to the 2002 TUC annual conference.

It gives me great pleasure to be the first leader of the Liberal Democrats to be invited to address Congress, although it’s by no means the first time that I’ve been in attendance.

This is, of course, a day of commemoration. I have my own indelible memory of visiting Ground Zero not long after September 11th. I had the privilege of meeting the members of the emergency services who had been there that day, risked their lives and seen so many of their colleagues and others forfeit theirs. It was a day which saw unimaginable horror but also unimaginable courage which will never be forgotten.

Two years ago, John Monks became the first TUC General Secretary to address a Liberal Democrat annual conference. So this speech, if you like, is a return match. A significant proportion of trades union members now regularly vote Liberal Democrat. So good, constructive dialogue is important and I’m grateful to the TUC for keeping us well briefed on issues of mutual concern.

The fruits of our cooperation have been seen at Westminster. We’ve continued our long campaign alongside the nurses’ unions against the disgracefully low pay which has led so many people to leave that vital profession.

We’ve supported the teachers in their attempts to reduce the bureaucracy which has demoralized their profession so much.

In industry, we backed the demands which were successfully made by a number of unions for more flexible working. That’s especially important to women.

And we’ve also campaigned alongside you for Britain to adopt the European directive on Information and Consultation. Personally I thought it was a scandal that, when Vauxhall decided to shut a plant down, the first the workforce heard about it was on the radio.

We’re strongly in favour too of tougher action on health and safety.

And we share your anxieties about company pensions. Some employers have arbitrarily curtailed pension entitlements in an outrageous way. Liberal Democrats believe that members of pension schemes should have much clearer rights and much better legal protection.

Such attention to detail is extremely important. But so is the big picture. There’s an emerging consensus between us – from Europe to environmental responsibility, from employee rights to worker participation, from public services to the welfare state.

I’m a lifelong believer in trade unionism. When I was given a job as a shelf-stacker as a teenager, I immediately joined the shop-workers union USDAW. And from my first days as an MP – facing the onslaught of Thatcherism – I was convinced that strong trades unions were healthy for society.

And that strength derived from being accountable to and representative of their individual members. And such strength gave greater legitimacy to the vital role of modern, progressive trades unionism in the national agenda of democratic governance .

In those days we were way behind too much of continental Europe in this respect.

So I was delighted when Jacques Delors as Commission President addressed this Congress. That was a real turning-point. Remember how infuriated Mrs. Thatcher was? Satisfaction enough in itself for many of us.

But there was also great long-term benefit to all the progressive forces across the British body politic. It began to help shift the rhetoric – and the real agenda followed on.

There’s a pleasing sense of historical continuity here. The earliest trades union members were Liberals; Liberals in government pioneered the state pension; it was a Liberal, Beveridge, drawing on the work of the trade unions, who went on to lay down the intellectual foundations of the welfare state, enacted by the Attlee government.

Our party is strongly attached to the ideal of freedom. But that doesn’t mean simply leaving everything to the market.

As Beveridge said himself: ‘Liberty means more than freedom from the arbitrary power of Governments. It means freedom from economic servitude to Want and Squalor and other social evils.’

We Liberal Democrats believe in dialogue. We believe in cooperation with both sides of industry and between both sides of industry. And we believe in the language of cooperation. We reject the language of confrontation.

Of course we’re not going to agree automatically with everything you say.

But we’ll listen. You won’t catch Liberal Democrats describing trade unionists as wreckers.

And I believe that the momentum of public opinion is swinging towards both of us –

Liberal Democrats and trade unionists alike.

When John addressed our conference two years ago he spoke tellingly about different approaches to capitalism. He rejected – and we do too – what he called ‘the deregulated wild-west devil take the hindmost style of the US.’

Two years on and the American model is looking distinctly shop-soiled and tarnished.

Slowly, but surely, the more socially-orientated European approach is coming to be appreciated. Not least when it involves a degree of social and environmental responsibility.

Consider these words:-

‘In business, the warts on the face of capitalism – every Enron story, every bit of creative accounting, every shoddy or overpriced product, every little exploitation of an employee or a supplier, every unjustified increase in executive remuneration, every bit of damage to the environment – each one of these has a cumulative, corrosive effect.

‘A company that simply dances to the fickle tunes of the financial markets does itself no good – nor the wider interests of business, nor the cause of capitalism.’

Karl Marx? Arthur Scargill? Tony Benn?

No, in fact I’m quoting from this year’s personal valedictory address by the retiring President of the CBI, Sir Iain Vallance. Incidentally, Sir Iain has subsequently

joined the Liberal Democrats.

It seems that Sir Edward Heath’s ‘unacceptable face of capitalism’ is still with us.

But it’s not mission impossible to transform its appearance.

Of course we believe in markets. Nobody’s talking about a return to old fashioned state run bureaucracies. But the European approach to markets is preferable to the American model in almost every way. It treats workers decently. It protects their rights. It delivers quality public services. It’s better at long-term planning. And it makes for a stronger and more stable economy.

It would be better still for Britain to join the euro – at the right exchange rate. We look to the Government to give a lead.

But I’m not convinced that Ministers sufficiently grasp the broader merits of Europe.

Take the public services. Britain has fallen woefully behind our European partners when it comes to the standard of our hospitals, schools and transport system.

We Liberal Democrats – like you in the TUC – called for the Government to put in the investment needed much earlier and faster than they have.

But now at last they’ve done what we asked them to do. So it’s become a question of how the money’s best spent.

I don’t say that everything should be done through the public sector. I have no ideological hang-ups between public and private. What I do say is that there shouldn’t be an automatic American-style assumption that the private sector is always better.

So let’s retain all our collective, critical faculties over the next few years over the funding and the delivery of the public services.

I welcome the extra investment the Government has belatedly promised for public services.

But I am concerned about the fairness and transparency by which the sums involved are being raised. I fear that Gordon Brown’s extra billions for the NHS will be squandered unless we reform the tax system to make sure the taxpayer gets value for money. That’s why I shall strongly support a proposal to be put to our party conference later this month to take health funding out of general taxation.

Our proposal is to turn National Insurance into National Health Insurance. That would give people a cast-iron guarantee that the money raised for health is actually spent on the NHS – not sucked into the Treasury.

Earmarking National Insurance – perhaps to be renamed the NHS Contribution – can easily be achieved because it raises almost exactly the amount of money that needs to be spent on the NHS. What’s more, it’s set to rise above inflation in years to come. This way, we’ll guarantee extra funding for health in the long-term, regardless of the Chancellor’s short-term calculations at budget time.

Far too many decisions over public services are taken behind closed doors by the man – and, all too often, it still remains the man – in Whitehall. So the second part of our reform plan for health – and indeed for education too – is for a major shift in power away from Whitehall to each locality in Britain.

I want to see far more decisions taken far closer to the patients, the passengers and the pupils. Far more power for locally and regionally elected politicians who understand best the needs of their areas. And far more say too for the dedicated staff at all levels in health and education.

That way the extra resources stand a far better chance of getting through to the front line rather than being swallowed-up by bureaucrats in quango-land. The Liberal Democrats and the TUC are never going to be in each other’s pockets. From our financial point of view, chance would be a fine thing!

But just as we have to build a party that’s in no-one else’s pocket, largely by digging into our own, so the progressive forces in our society can only stand to mutual benefit by a principled process of cooperation.

Thank you for your invitation today. I hope that this contribution assists towards that highly desirable social and political aspiration.