We win when we seek the common ground

Full text of the opening speech of Progress political weekend 2017, given by Progress chair Alison McGovern MP:

Hello everyone and welcome to Progress political weekend 2017.

Before I start I just want to thank Richard, Matthew, Laura, Conor, Jerome and the whole team at Progress for all the work they have done in organising this weekend.  They do an unreasonably hard job.  And carry it off with a sense of humour and dedication that is extraordinary.

They have given us a brilliant line-up over the next couple of days, with all you could want from a weekend of politics.

We have Harriet Harman talking about the Labour Party and her life fighting for equality. Excellent sessions on skills, on policy and on what next for Labour. We have the amazing Jess Phillips keeping us entertained after dinner. And tomorrow morning the wonderful Peter Kyle interviewing the enigmatic Peter Mandelson.

But to start this welcome I want to reflect on the year that has passed.

When I spoke last year, Jeremy Corbyn had just won a leadership election and you could say that the mood here was a bit sombre. So, I wanted to set the tone. And I said three things.

I said it was the hard left that called us bitter, and that we shouldn’t live up to that name. I said I didn’t want to talk endlessly about internal Labour politics, I wanted to talk about the country. And I said that, for all the challenges we face, Britain is getting better, we are making progress, too little in the past six years, but progress nonetheless.

Now over the last 12 months it’s fair to say that there have been moments that tested that theory.

For some of us it will have been the night of June 23rd seeing those results come in from Sunderland and Newcastle. For some of us it will have been staying up all night hoping to see the first woman president of the United States, watching as those rust belt states turned red not blue.

For some it will have been Labour politics.

I know many of you are in despair that an institution that has been so vital to public life in our country for over 100 years has been put in the hands of a man with little experience, who is obsessed with the past and who has barely left Islington for decades.

But I for one believe in being loyal to my colleagues. I am sure Tristram Hunt will do a great job at the V&A.

A lot has happened in the last year, but actually I think very little has changed about where we are and what we need to do.

We may now be called Remoaners instead of Bitterites, but the need to defy these labels remains the same as ever. The need to focus on the problems of Britain not the problems of Labour remains the same as ever. And our values may have been challenged, but the need to reject pessimism and fatalism about our country and its future remains the same as ever.

In welcoming you all today I just want to say a few words about Britain and about division.

I can’t remember a time when the tone of political debate in our country has been so fractious and divisive.

In person and online – even in the House of Commons – political debate has become a shouting match, where insults substitute for argument, and dissenting voices are marginalised and abused.

This hasn’t just happened. It is not even an inevitable consequence of the European or Scottish referenda. Rather, it is the direct result of decisions taken by politicians, and vacuum of real national leadership.

For years, the tune of British politics has been called by people who seek to divide us from each other in different ways.

First, we have the growth of the hard right, of British nationalism, espoused by UKIP and their Tory backbench friends.

It’s not new of course. It is an old, old, story that when times are tough, when people are struggling to get by, the far right and the hard right will spread their poison.

Struggling to get a doctor’s appointment? Don’t blame an underfunded NHS, blame the person who is just like you, who is caring for their family, and paying their taxes just like you, but happens to be from Poland.

Worried about your children getting into a good school? Don’t blame the government cutting education funding for the first time in decades. Blame the person who is just like you, and wants their children to have a future just like you, but happens to be from Portugal.

Frustrated that your wages haven’t risen and the cost of living is being squeezed? Don’t blame the government’s abysmal failure on productivity. Blame the person who is just like you, who is working until they break, just like you, but happens to be from Romania.

It is the oldest trick in the book.

The steady drip of lies from the far right and the hard right. And the abject capitulation of those who should know better. Cause it’s not just the Ukip lies that bother me.

It’s the so-called moderate Conservatives who – for years – have gone along with an agenda of stoking tensions and division about immigration and about Europe. Those who have indulged the fiction that the EU has stolen our sovereignty and Europeans have stolen our jobs. They are culpable too.

They are culpable for the toxic debate about immigration and for the belittling of our reputation for tolerance and decency among our allies and our friends. Short term political tactics have long term consequences for our country and we should never forget it or allow our resolve to weaken in the face of prejudice and discrimination.

Their nudge-nudge nods to the half-truths peddled by the hard right have cheapened democracy. Truth counts for little, if you are a Tory and believe yourself entitled to be prime minister. General election after general election they have demonstrated self-interest, and a total lack of back-bone in calling out those who would divide us.

Second, we have Scottish nationalism and its enablers.

Scotland today is trapped in a destructive debate about independence, despite the views of the Scottish people who want to move on from division.

The nationalists have given up pretending that their number one priority is education and exposed what we all know – they only know how to divide their country, not how to unite it.  They have just one answer to the source of all problems: Westminster. Even as the Scottish education system crumbles and child poverty in Scotland rises, the SNP could change Scotland for the better, but they don’t.  Because nationalists need to blame someone else.  

And so, they must distract from their failure dividing people by saying you cannot be Scottish and British at the same time. Let nobody be fooled. They are no progressives. This is not a progressive nationalism.  It’s petty nationalism in the interests of no one but the nationalists.

Of course, the Tories have failed the UK too. It was the Tories who failed to bring our country together after the Scottish referendum and who cynically tried to fight a general election campaign pitting England against Scotland. You can’t stand for the values that hold the United Kingdom together when you run around undermining it when it suits.

But beyond the two nationalisms, British and Scottish, there is a deeper sense of division in the country.

You will have heard it.  Leavers versus Remainers. The 48 per cent versus the 52 per cent. The metropolitan liberal elite versus the left behind. Two tribes of people in our country, with little in common, divided by values and growing further apart.

David Goodhart has called it the ‘somewheres’ versus the ‘anywheres’. People who value the place and community they live and people who have liberal values and could live anywhere.

The somewheres are allegedly people with lower incomes, less economically and therefore geographically mobile. It is said that they are socially conservative, and are not interested in the causes of middle class Labourite: equality, feminism or multiculturalism.

But working-class communities I know in industrial areas, particularly in the north of England, are not filled with people who are all exactly the same, no more than metropolitan cities are.

Let’s take one example, the view that LGBT rights are the preserve of the metropolitan liberal elite.  That socially conservative working-class people are not keen.

To that, my response is simple. In working-class towns, right across Britain, there are gay people.

In fact, I don’t agree that working-class communities are profoundly more homophobic, but if they were, how much worse to be an LGBT young person growing up and having to deal with that?

Wouldn’t you look to the Labour party – the political party of Angela Eagle, and Chris Smith, the party of ending section 28 and creating civil partnerships – wouldn’t you look to trade unions and the Labour party to defend you and help your community understand your life?  Of course you would.  

Wouldn’t you hope that the working-class trade unionist would apply the simple principle of solidarity in the face of oppression to your cause and march alongside you? Of course you would. And of course they would march too.  

And if we turn away from equality in pursuit of some narrow stereotype of working-class life, we let each and every one of these young people down.

Worse. If we presume that narrow stereotype of working-class life, if we accept these supposed limitations on working-class life, we let each and every working-class person down too.

Same goes for feminism.  We are told that working class women are not helped by so-called middle class feminism. That working-class women are not bothered about political representation or rights for women at work.

To which, I say. How dare you.

The idea that feminism is some kind of middle class pursuit is a deep insult to women from a lower income background who are entitled to as much freedom and equality as everyone else.

The greatest feminist cause in Britain today is pay.

Some of the lowest paid jobs are dominated by women workers. Women in care, in retail, in hospitality are precisely those who most need the resurgence of the trade union movement.  They need representation and collective bargaining as much as any train driver or manufacturing worker.  

When the national minimum wage was introduced the majority of people whose pockets got a little heavier with cash were women.  Because the greatest feminist cause in Britain has always been pay.

Working-class women are as entitled to hold the feminist banner as anyone else.  They are at the centre of our fight not because they are a breed apart but because they are our mothers, our sisters, our loved ones and our friends.

And if it sounds like I am angry about the stereotypes being employed in the somewhere versus anywheres division, it’s perhaps because I look at my own life, my friends and my family, and I refuse to see one dimensional cardboard cut outs.  

My mum wasn’t exactly well-paid when she was a nurse, or worked in childcare, but it was her that gave me my love of art.  My friend Jay had an extraordinarily challenging childhood near Watford, left school without any qualifications, but nonetheless had the desire to go to Newcastle university, and cares about injustice in the middle east as much as anyone from Camden or Lambeth.  My friend Tony works in construction, where you might imagine multiculturalism isn’t popular. But he is more passionately against the horrors of racism than any Islingtonian named Jeremy or Tristram.  

The people I love aren’t ‘working-class somewheres’ or ‘middle class anywheres’. They are my family and my friends.  They are wonderful in their diversity.  If you too read this stuff about the so-called two tribes in Britain, and fail to see the people you love, you are not alone.

Because I just don’t accept that there is this unbridgeable chasm or divide in Britain between groups. Or there doesn’t have to be. Sure, you can find people who disagree on immigration, or feminism, or the EU – but they might agree on defence, or education, or welfare. Or vice versa.

That is the point of a political party. A common, overriding vision, with points of debate.

And what is our overriding vision? Well just looking at our country, we see the countless ways in which Britain is profoundly unequal, and we can see that this must urgently be addressed.

Economically, London and the south-east is powering ahead, whilst other regions see little investment.  Jobs in care or retail are undervalued compared to graduate jobs and people are left with little or no chance for career progression.   Social mobility too often means a one-way ticket to London or another big city, whilst towns empty out and are economically left behind.

People are often right to think the country isn’t working for them, but this does not mean they hold fundamentally different values from those who the system advantages, and couldn’t vote for the same unifying cause if offered the chance to.

Labour’s task is to fix such problems that hold people back, not to indulge the fatalism that says that people are irreconcilably different in the things they want from life and from their government.

People are not naturally divided into tribes, it is politics that can divide or unite them.

And there are those who are trying to widen these divides already. Digging into trenches for one side or the other.

The prime minister calling remainers ‘citizens of nowhere’ and wants only to speak for people who voted leave, and the Lib Dems are cynically trying to capture the remain vote with promises of a second referendum.

Faced with this, Labour has three choices. We can stand idly by while this division is militarised around us.

We can plant our flag on one side or the other, as some are urging us to do.

Or we can show leadership, real leadership, and seek the common ground that can bring people together.

For me it’s no choice at all.

Labour must be the voice of unity.

This is true electorally, we cannot neither hold our coalition together nor grow it if we seek only to represent one half of this divide.

But much, much, more importantly, it is true to our values.

If you believe, as I do, that people from Britain and people from Syria have more in common than that which divides us, the same must surely hold for people from North London and people from North Lincolnshire.

If we give up on this idea, and accept the argument that Britain is fundamentally divided, then we are not the Labour family that said, your hand in mine, we fight together.

What we do, we do together. Never ever forget it.

So, let me finish by saying this.

This year is the twentieth anniversary of the great Labour victory in 1997. I know many of you will have read the brilliant editorial in Progress magazine.

Let us, once and for all, be clear.

The Labour government that came to power when I was 16 made our country a much, much better place by the time I was 29. Now, though, we cannot turn the clock back to 1997, or form some tribute act to the politics of the late nineties.

If, however, there is a lesson from that victorious year, it is this.

When we are ambitious, when we cast our net wide, when we truly listen to the public, respond to their concerns and seek the common ground that unites our country – that’s when Labour can change our country.

With hard work, it can be done. So that is the task before Labour. It’s the task we have always faced. Bringing our country together and beat back the politics of fear and division. We need to defeat nationalism and give the Tories the outright, unequivocal kicking they deserve at the ballot box.

And no matter what you may have heard, the real fight doesn’t start now.

And it doesn’t start or tomorrow, in six months time.

It didn’t start in last year or in 2010 or in 1997.

It is the fight that has always defined British politics.

Not Remainers vs Leavers, Scottish vs English or somewhere vs anywhere.

It is not about politicians vs people.

It’s those who seek to divide our country, and cynically exploit that division, against those who want to bring people together and govern properly for the advancement of everyone across the United Kingdom.

The Labour party is the only political force capable and willing to heal the divisions in Britain. So it’s time to get on with the job. Our country deserves better leadership. It is time Britain had it.

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Alison McGovern MP is chair of Progress. She tweets at @Alison_McGovern

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