Thank you for inviting me and thank you to Cynon Valley CLP and Ann Clwyd for organising it. It is an honour to be here in Aberdare, Wales to give the Keir Hardie Lecture and thank you all for coming.
At Labour Party conference last year I spoke at the launch of a new book about Keir Hardie, ‘What Would Keir Hardie Say?’ edited by Pauline Bryan to which I contributed a chapter.
Little did I know when I submitted my piece that I would be following in Keir’s footsteps and soon becoming the Leader of the Labour Party.
Who would have thought it would take 100 years for our party to elect another bearded leader?
I would also recommend Caroline Benn’s biography of Keir. For anyone who doesn’t know, Tony Benn had Keir Hardie’s chair in his house – I sat in it many times. It was extraordinarily uncomfortable. I always thought that the discomfort was an incentive not to talk for too long at meetings!
Friends, it is a great honour to be Labour Leader it is a great honour to be talking about a great man who did more to found our party than any other and who still inspires us to this day.
Tonight, I don’t want to give an historical lecture about Keir Hardie’s life I want us to consider how Keir Hardie continues to inspire and inform us today.
Keir was born in Scotland but he represented a parliamentary seat in England, West Ham South in London’s east end and later here in Wales.
Keir Hardie knew this part of Wales well and got to know many other parts of Britain too because of his work in solidarity with mineworkers all over the country.
He got to know the south Wales coalfields during a six month miners’ strike in the late nineteenth century and then became the local MP for Merthyr and Aberdare.
Talking of Aberdare, I am pleased that this week a son of this great area the PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka has rejoined our party.
It is very welcome that thousands of people have joined and rejoined our party doubling our membership and made our party a mass movement again.
Mark Serwotka said a few years ago “Call centres are the new dark satanic mills. We have people who have to put their hand up to ask to go to the toilet. It may not be a factory or a steel foundry, but they’re very difficult jobs, the turnover rates are huge, low paid, oppressive.”
Today the mines are gone but injustice remains in the workplace. That’s why Labour will soon be launching Workplace 2020 – the biggest ever discussion about the world of work. It will be led by our shadow minister for trade unions and civil society, Ian Lavery MP, a former President of the National Union of Miners.
The Conservative government boasts of record employment but they can also boast record in-work poverty too. We want more jobs, but they can be good jobs quantity and quality.
For too many people today work is insecure, hours are unstable. Instability at work leads to instability at home.
We have the scourge of low pay, zero hours contracts, temporary agency workers, umbrella companies and bogus self-employment, workfare, unpaid internships and some low quality apprenticeships being used to circumvent the minimum wage legislation.
Minimum wage legislation by the way that Keir Hardie called for and a Labour government delivered and it is Labour councils across the UK that are promoting the living wage. And it is unions like the Bakers whose young inspiring members I recently met in Scarborough that are campaigning for £10 per hour.
And we must also end the scourge of blacklisting. Hardie became a union official and organiser because he was blacklisted as a worker in 1879. He started working in the mines aged 11 and it took him until he was 23 to be blacklisted – obviously a late bloomer!
Seriously though, I want to pay tribute to the work of UCATT, GMB and Unite in campaigning against blacklisting and for the full inquiry that the victims deserve.
So much time has passed, but the fundamental structures of work and sadly many of the abuses … remain unchanged. Unaccountable forces set your pay, your working hours, your working conditions, whether you have a decent pension so much power, so little accountability – unless we force it.
Trade unions were founded to rebalance that power, to organise people together to fight for their rights. Trade unions are the greatest force for equality – when trade unions are weak inequality rises when trade unions are strong inequality reduces.
Keir Hardie knew that. I know it. And the Tories know it too. That’s why they’re trying to force through their Trade Union Bill. The UK already has the most restrictive trade union laws in Europe and the Tories want to tighten them further.
It was only the action of Labour MEPs in partnership with trade unions that ensured workers’ rights were kept off Cameron’s EU negotiations.
Labour is united in fighting the Trade Union Bill we are opposing it in the Commons and in the Lords.
And when Labour is re-elected in 2020 we will repeal that Tory legislation and we will go further – informed by our Workplace 2020 discussions – and set out a modern agenda of strengthened workplace and trade union rights.
Like Hardie, I too believe the House of Lords should be abolished, but as long as it’s there, we will use it as best we can to resist.
And we did that on tax credits Labour forced the government into a u-turn which has saved 3 million families over £1,000 a year, from this April.
I am proud of the tax credits that the last Labour government brought in. They are a lifeline to working people and – with a record six million workers in Britain now paid less than the living wage – they are more necessary than ever.
In Parliament, he faced a baying mob of Tory MPs who derided him as the ‘Member for the Unemployed’. He saw that as a badge of honour rather than an insult. He wasn’t ashamed to stand up for the unemployed, the disabled, those injured at work.
Keir Hardie spoke with vision, with passion, with clarity. He acted with determination and courage – our party would not exist without it. It would not have achieved all it has done over the last century.
And yet many of our members and supporters felt Labour had lost its way. Many people say one of the turning points of the leadership contest was the decision to abstain on the Welfare Reform and Work Bill.
Keir Hardie never lived to see one of Labour’s greatest yet under-appreciated achievements – the welfare state. We founded the social security system to eradicate poverty, end homelessness and destitution – to create a safety net through which no one should fall.
Social security saves lives, prevents misery and creates opportunity. It is funded collectively for the good of all – “from each according to their means, to each according to their needs”.
Since September, we as a party have opposed the Tories’ Welfare Reform & Work Bill and we have defeated the government on some elements of it.
I was elected Leader not for who I am, but because members wanted a re-commitment to our values. Not to turn back the clock to 1906 or 1945 or 1997, but because members wanted to know our party was committed to setting out a bold vision to create a fairer society and a better world inspired by the values that have guided our movement and led to our greatest achievements; the NHS, the welfare state, comprehensive education, council housing, the minimum wage, and all the equalities legislation that Labour governments delivered.
The leadership contest wasn’t about electing me, Jeremy Corbyn, it was about the party re-asserting those values, re-asserting itself as a campaigning social movement.
Now we must – together – develop the policies from those values that convince the country and get us elected in 2020.
Keir Hardie took a lot of jibes and he wore them with pride. He came to Parliament to represent working class people and he took that responsibility seriously.
Parliament isn’t a forum to get a newspaper column, a better media profile, a stepping stone to cushy corporate job or an ego boost. We – as Labour MPs – are elected to Parliament to represent people, to make society better for them, we are there to work hard for our constituents as I aspire to and as I know Ann Clwyd always has for you here in Cynon Valley.
Keir Hardie was once asked by a House of Commons attendant, “Are you working here mate?” Hardie answered “I am”. The attendant then enquired, “where, on the roof?”. Hardie is said to have replied, “no, on the floor”. The House of Commons chamber is often referred to as ‘the floor’.
When he first took his seat in 1892 Hardie refused to wear the ‘parliamentary uniform’ of black frock coat, black silk top hat and starched wing collar. Instead, Hardie wore a plain tweed suit, a red tie and a deerstalker. He was lambasted in the press, “cloth cap in Parliament” said one headline.
At least we have moved on from such trivialities today.
But we commemorate Keir Hardie not for what he wore but for what he stood for. Let’s just go through a few of the policies that Keir fought for:
Healthy homes and fair rents – tragically a demand that is still necessary today. When housebuilding has fallen to its lowest level since the 1920s, when rents are rising, evictions are up, homelessness is up and home ownership is falling because people are priced out.
And last month the Tories opposed a Labour amendment to the housing bill which insisted that any home for rent must be fit for human habitation.
Hardie called for a graduated income tax, progressive taxation, yet the Tories cut the 50p rate on the rich to 45p and rumours suggest they may scrap it altogether in the Budget in two weeks’ time.
Even worse they call it a “major success” when they convince big multinational companies to pay just 2% in tax. At Treasury questions, John McDonnell, our shadow chancellor, asked George Osborne about tax justice, the Chancellor looked blank. John replied, “google it!”
Labour would tackle these abuses.
Earlier this week I was invited to speak at the British Chamber of Commerce conference. Some may say they’re not our natural allies.
I disagree. In her biography of Keir, Caroline Benn wrote:
“He profoundly believed the entrepreneur was as ill-served by giant cartels and monopolies as were working men”
I agree. We want to clamp down on the abuses that force employers into a race to the bottom. How can it be right that my local coffee shop pay its taxes, yet the corporate coffee chain next door shifts its tax liabilities abroad? How can tech start-ups grow when established global giants get ‘mates rates’ deals?
By creating a level playing field, strong employment rights, fair taxes, strong rights for consumers too, we stop the undercutting of good businesses by bad businesses.
Tax is not a burden; it is the price we pay to live in a civilised society. And let us be clear, this government has cut taxes for the rich; slashed taxes for large corporations.
Hardie also supported devolution. Again later delivered by a Labour government. But more importantly look at what a Labour government has delivered here in Wales thanks for devolution. I think Keir Hardie would be proud of:
- Free prescriptions
- No trebling of student fees
- No fights picked with junior doctors
- The social care budget protected
- The Education Maintenance Allowance abolished by the Tories protected by Labour Wales
Thanks to Hardie and the other Labour MPs elected in 1906, the Education (Provision of Meals) Act was delivered, providing school meals to children and the Wales Labour government has gone further with a free breakfast for all primary school pupils.
Hardie also stood for the women’s right to vote at a time when it was not popular, even sadly in parts of the labour movement. He was arrested for supporting women’s suffrage.
As we approach International Women’s Day (next week, 8 Mar), remember it was Labour that fought for equal votes, Labour that delivered the Equal Pay Act, Labour that delivered the Equalities Act, and Labour that now has a shadow cabinet that has a majority of women.
Keir stood for peace, internationalism, equal rights. To him these weren’t just abstract concepts, but concrete beliefs that informed everything he campaigned for in his political life.
Keir’s life, impressive by any standards, had a universal and global vision that was very different from many other great Labour figures of that period.
This year marks 100 years since the senseless barbarity of the Somme. Hardie died just a few months before it. But just two days before the first world war was declared, he spoke in Trafalgar Square at a rally where a declaration was adopted. It concluded by stating:
“Men and women of Britain, you now have an unexampled opportunity of showing your power, rendering magnificent service to humanity and to the world. Proclaim for you that the days of plunder and butchery have gone by. Send messages of peace and fraternity to your fellows who have less liberty than you.”
It was a deeply unpopular stance to take at the time. Hardie was hounded at his home and on the street as unpatriotic.
There is nothing less patriotic than sending young British men – and it was mostly men – to die without good cause. And Hardie was a great defender of those who conscientiously objected to war.
As socialists, we are internationalists. We reject the jingoism of ‘my country right or wrong’ whether we see our country as Wales, England, Hardie’s native Scotland, or as Britain.
Hardie worked hard to unite all peace groups as he knew the dreadful day would arrive when Britain, France, Germany, Russia and the Ottoman empire would all be at war – with millions of working men lined up against each other.
As one of the organisers of the 2003 anti-war demonstration in London, I was acutely aware of the breadth of the support and the global nature of the peace movement.
Perhaps the strongest message a century on is that a world of peace can only come by opposing militarism, campaigning for and building a socially just economic system and through the complex work of conflict resolution and sustaining peace.
Syria presents a huge challenge for today’s political leadership. It means patient, difficult diplomacy, working with those we may disagree with.
We have a responsibility to the British people and to the Syrian people. We can’t take the easy option of doing nothing or the other easy option of pretending that dropping bombs can solve complex problems. The world is a complex place and we have to engage in meaningful efforts to secure a more peaceful world.
Neither can we wash our hands of the consequences of wars. The massive refugee crisis should shame us all. It will only be resolved by nations acting collectively to address this and other major international problems, like climate change, tax avoidance, terrorism, trade and human rights.
Keir Hardie knew that working for peace was difficult. I know that. The complexities of 21st century geopolitics are different, but the principles that should inform our decisions endure.
That is why are campaigning to stay in the European Union. The EU is imperfect, but many of its imperfections are those of its constituent parts. It has the potential to deliver as it has when Labour has led in Europe, like on the agency workers’ directive.
Our mission now is the same as that which he laid out just 21 years into the Labour Party’s existence, when he said that the movement would not rest until “the sunshine of Socialism and human freedom break forth upon our land.”
I couldn’t think of a better prescription for what our country needs to break through the narrow, nasty, divisive politics of the Conservatives.
Labour is about building a society and an economy that works for all.
“Socialism makes war upon a system” said Keir Hardie, but Socialism also builds a system as it says on our Labour membership cards, “in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many not the few”.
That is what we must do.
Let us be inspired by the vision and the campaigning energy of Keir Hardie – and deliver that better world.
The elections this May are a choice, a chance to vote for a Labour Party that is standing up, not standing by.
Austerity is a political choice, not an economic necessity. The Tories are making unfair choices and putting family prosperity at risk.
The Tories won’t stand up for working people. The choices they are making, cutting in-work support while millionaires get tax breaks, are a risk to family finances while their failure to invest for the future is putting the economy at risk.
Labour will stand up for people to build an economy which works for all, one where prosperity is shared, pay is fair and jobs are secure.
We will stand up for families struggling to buy or rent a home, by delivering more and better housing.
We will stand up against the unfair Tory cuts to protect the vital public services we all rely on. We will protect neighbourhood policing and oppose the deep Tory cuts to the police. And we will invest in the NHS to rescue it from Tory neglect – joining up services from home to hospital so it’s fit for the future.
Vote Labour this May – we will stand up for you.