Chuka Umunna – 2012 Speech to UCATT Conference

Below is the text of the speech made by Chuka Umunna to the UCATT Conference in Scarborough, Yorkshire, on 28th May 2012.

Conference, thank you so very much for inviting me here to speak to you today.

Before I begin my remarks, let me say thank you to each and every one of you for the support this union gave me in the lead up to the 2010 General Election – I would not be standing here as a Member of Parliament, let alone the Shadow Business Secretary, without yours and others’ help.

I pay tribute to the stewardship of your acting General Secretary, George Guy, and now your General Secretary, Steve Murphy, for guiding UCATT towards a bright future. And I must also pay a huge tribute to the contribution made over many years by your President, John Thompson.

And let me also say how proud I am to be able to say that this Union is headquartered in the centre of the universe which is my constituency.

For this is a union whose forebears, dating back to the British Industrial Revolution, in every sense of these words, built Britain.

They built the mills and the factories, the canals and the railways, the highways and the byways.

They built the houses the British people have lived in and much more besides.

And, given the hazards of the trade, let us not forget the thousands of construction workers who lost their lives in so doing. Construction today might be safer than before, but it is still one of the most dangerous occupations.

Carrying on your proud tradition, and in spite of the dangers, members of this union continue to build the homes we live in, the offices and plants we work in, the infrastructure we need, and the public spaces we share.

I was at the Olympic Park just last week, and what an incredible achievement that is. It is a true testament to our construction workers: built on time, built on budget, and without a single death. Or look at the example of Terminal 5 at Heathrow: built on time, built on budget, and safely with a directly employed workforce. Client, contractor and trade union working productively together in the interests of us all.

You provide the physical foundations upon which our growth, our prosperity, our success, is built. As a country, as a society, as a people – we owe a debt of gratitude to you.

So make no mistake: I wear my association with this union as a badge of honour.

And let me be clear: in our Party – from our Leader, Ed Miliband, to our local Labour Party members here in Scarborough – we all wear our links to the trade union movement with pride. We may not always agree. But we are all part of the same family.

My late father arrived in this country after a very long journey on a boat from Nigeria in the mid 1960s. He was terribly sea sick for most of it, and afraid because he couldn’t swim. So he was glad when he finally made it in one piece to Liverpool Docks. He came to make his way in the world, get on, find his fortune. But, like every other black person living in the Britain of the 1960s, he faced discrimination.

As a self made man and entrepreneur it surprises people when I say Harold Wilson was his hero. I am not surprised at all. It was the trade union movement, with a Labour Party in Government and a Labour Prime Minister, that led the charge for the equalities legislation which was enacted in the 60s and 70s. It was you who insisted employers be legally obliged to afford my father the same treatment as others.

Of course, he wasn’t the only one who benefitted. My Mum, my sister and my aunties – all the female members of all our families: they benefitted too from the right to equal pay, maternity rights and the other social reforms we, working together, introduced over the years.

So we have all seen what a Labour Party – working with and as part of a wider labour movement – can do for the hard working majority in this country.

Our duty as a movement – in the interests of all, to build that better Britain – is immensely important. To protect hard working people, the mainstream majority. It goes to the very essence of what we are all about.

You understand that more than most, in the risks you take doing your jobs. Hundreds of people have died on site over the last decade, thousands have been injured or developed work-related health problems, so UCATT’s voice is vital in making construction sites safer and better.

The overwhelming majority of businesses understand the importance of health and safety. I visited the Siemens’ factory in Newcastle the other week that builds huge wind turbines. They left me in no doubt how seriously they take their responsibilities. Regrettably others do not. You see, it is easy for the Tories and people on the right condemn health and safety regulations. But it is not their lives at risk.

This duty to protect extends far beyond health and safety. We are seeing a sustained attack on the rights of people at work from this Government.

They have already made it harder to claim unfair dismissal. They are now considering giving small firms the right to fire you at will. Or – as their consultation document puts it – to dismiss “where no fault was identified on the part of the employee”.

Firing at will is one of the recommendations of the dreadful report on employment law commissioned by the Prime Minister from millionaire Tory donor, Adrian Beecroft. This is a shocking proposal. But it is not the only extreme proposal in his report.

You may remember the tragic deaths of 23 Chinese cockle pickers in Morecambe Bay in 2004. The following year Labour set up the Gang Masters Licensing Authority to prevent the exploitation of workers in the agriculture and shellfish gathering industries. The Authority does incredibly important work – indeed we want to see its scope extended to the construction industry. We were right to set it up. Adrian Beecroft proposes its abolition. He is wrong.

And there is more. In 1994, two Black hotel waitresses were made to serve drinks during a performance by the notorious comedian, Bernard Manning. They were subjected to racially and sexually abusive remarks by Manning and took their employers to a tribunal. They won. No one should have to put up with this kind of abuse at work. Labour legislated to put this protection on a firm footing, and to cover all grounds of unlawful discrimination. Adrian Beecroft says the Government should repeal this law. Again, he is wrong.

I have a question for the Prime Minister: given all this, how on earth can you call the Beecroft document, “a good report” as he did last Wednesday? Ed Miliband was right: we are seeing the true colours of the “nasty party” once more.

Cameron responded by seeking to frame this as a union issue. It just shows how out of touch he and his Government have become. The proposal to fire people at will would affect over 3.5 million employees working in the private sector, the vast majority of whom are not members of a union. If you have millions of pounds in the bank – like those who can afford to have dinner with the Prime Minister – it is unlikely to trouble you.

But this is not an issue of left versus right. It is an issue of right versus wrong. Calling the Beecroft Report “a good report” is wrong.

Sadly, the Prime Minister’s rhetoric does not surprise me. At a time of national crisis, when he could be drawing us together, he has sought to divide and rule. We saw it over the dispute on public sector pensions last year. We saw it during the fuel tanker drivers dispute this year. We saw it at Prime Minster’s Questions last week. Ministers seeking to divide public from private, trade union member from non trade union member – sowing the seeds of division instead of building consensus.

Yet here’s the thing: it is interesting, that when Cabinet Minister Francis Maude was fanning the flames of discord and compromising public safety with his talk of jerry-cans in the garage, it was an ex- fireman and former member of the Fire Brigades Union, Mike Penning, the Transport Minister, who they wheeled out to try and calm the panic they had created.

Their backbenchers are even worse. Government backbenchers sought to mount a direct attack on this and other trade unions, targeting the day-to-day support trade union reps give to staff at work. Labour MPs roundly defeated the Bill and saw off this attack. To his credit, so did one Conservative MP, Robert Halfon.

Robert wrote a pamphlet in March entitled “Stop the Union Bashing”. Much as it pains me, Robert points out in his pamphlet that almost a third of trade union members in this country are thought to be Conservative voters. It is they who the Tories are attacking. The Prime Minister, his Ministers and his backbenchers attacks on you are not only wrong. It is bad politics too.

It is important to protect hard won gains, and it is right to protest against a government attacking the rights of working people. But we must be clear why, in addition to this, people also join trade unions: to get on, to achieve, to provide. The voice of protest is important, especially with this Government at this time. But the voice of progress must be heard as loudly too.

Our trade unions are powerful forces behind our economic success. Each and every one of you – directly and indirectly – are wealth creators for this country. So we have got to get this message through better, to change public perceptions of our movement. It is hard in the face of a hostile media. But try we must.

We must be shouting your success from the rooftops in helping business to succeed, in helping people to get on, to meet their aspirations. Like GM’s recent announcement that it will build a new generation of Astra cars at Ellesmere Port – I went on television to say this was a shining example of trade unions as a force for economic progress for our country, working in partnership with management and the government. Just like the Olympics. Just like Terminal 5.

As we try to forge a different path for Britain’s future – that is better for business and better for working people – we need you to be part of shaping that vision: through your actions, and the good you represent, writing UCATT – and the wider union movement – into the next pages of our national story. That is our ambition, and I want it to be yours.

A trade union of wealth creators; a movement that has and will continue to speak for the hardworking majority in Britain.

Of course, attacking working people distracts from the real reasons why wealth creation has proved so difficult this last two years: the economic incompetence of this Government.

We said if they cut too far and too fast, in blind pursuit of austerity for ideological reasons, they would choke off the recovery.

They were fond of referring to “Labour’s mess” but the facts tell a different story. Following the global financial crash of 2008/9 we took action to prevent a recession becoming a depression. In so doing, the country incurred debts which had to be dealt with. Alistair Darling set us on a course to halve the deficit in 4 years at a speed and pace that the economy could cope with, allowing it to grow.

When we left office in May 2010 the economy was growing, unemployment was falling and the recovery was settling in. Because of growth, the deficit was falling, with borrowing £20 billion lower than forecast in the last year of government.

George Osborne’s Comprehensive Spending Review – based on an ideological fixation with hacking chunks from the public sector and strongly supported by Vince Cable and the Liberal Democrats – precipitated a huge dive in business and consumer confidence.

Slower growth and higher unemployment means that the Government is borrowing £150 billion more than planned to pay for its economic failure. The wrong choices by this Government today – of tax cuts for millionaires and austerity for the rest – are prolonging the pain of a stalled economy, and focusing the burden on those least able to bear it.

Your sector, construction, could be leading the recovery. Instead it is being held back by the lack of demand in the economy and a lack of confidence in the future. Last week we saw that our economy had shrunk by 0.3 per cent in the first 3 months of this year, not 0.2 per cent as previously thought. And the figures showed that your sector – construction – had shrunk by 4.8 per cent on the previous quarter. Plan A has taken our economy back into recession – a recession made in Downing Street.

It is time for Plan B: Labour’s five point plan for jobs and growth. By bringing forward infrastructure investment, such as school buildings, by building 25,000 more affordable homes, cutting VAT on home improvements, by giving a national insurance break to small firms taking on new workers, it would revive the construction industry and get the economy moving again. Through growth as well as fiscal discipline it would bring the nation’s finances back into balance.

With this Government’s incompetence there are big reasons to worry today. But there are also reasons for hope about tomorrow. I am optimistic about our national future. I look at the rise of the fast emerging Southern and Eastern economies and I know we will have to raise our game to compete. But I also know we can.

And I see huge opportunities too. Within the next two decades, the size of the global middle class will almost triple in size to 5 billion people. That’s a whole lot of new demand we can be meeting if we start to prepare our economy now. We need to be clear about where we can compete. We need to develop our people and the other things we need to succeed. And we need to ensure that everyone can be a part of this success. It is what Ed Miliband has talked about: the need for a more responsible and productive capitalism, that is investing for the long term not the fast buck; that is competing on high value not low cost; that views people as assets to be nurtured, not costs to be cut.

Business has responsibilities, but government does too. It is wrong that this Government is prepared to stand by while rogue businesses exploit loopholes in the law to evade justice when their malpractice leads to deaths at work. My parliamentary colleague and proud UCATT member Luciana Berger introduced a Bill to Parliament earlier this year to stop this. When workers are injured or killed at work, employers must be held accountable. They should not be able to get out of an investigation by claiming bankruptcy. The Bill would have stopped this but it didn’t pass. So I give this commitment today: the next Labour Government will act to prevent this abuse. It puts the lives of workers at risk. It is irresponsible. It is wrong. We will stop it.

Let me conclude by saying this: we need to get growth going today, and reform our economy so that it works for all. That must be our priority.

Our economic destinies are all intertwined – so we all have a role to play in shaping our national future.

Our movement is nothing if not confident and ambitious for what we can all achieve working together.

So I look forward to working closely with this union – with its wonderful history with a great future ahead of it – to build Britain once more.

Thank you.