Alison McGovern opens Progress annual conference 2018 with the case for a progressive Labour
It’s the first weekend for many of us after months and months of local election campaigning. It must be the first free Saturday morning many of you have had in a year. And you choose to be here, at Progress conference. Amazing.
It’s also been a year in which there were times when people said Progress – the organisation not the idea – might not last. But of course, they were wrong. Progress has survived because progressives – those who look forward, not back – have a home in the Labour party, and we are needed now more than ever.
But – we must be honest – while Progress has grown, too many people in our country feel politically homeless. Too many of us know good friends who have left Labour, and others who are questioning the point of staying in our Labour family.
And too many of us are being asked ourselves why we are still in Labour.
So, as we start our conference today I want briefly to give my answer to that question, but first let me alert you to three things.
- The debates we are winning.
- The debates we need to win.
- And the things that we will make sure are never up for debate.
Now friends, a year ago, I stood here to announce that we would launch the Labour campaign for the single market – to change Labour’s Brexit policy to keep us in the single market and the customs union.
We believed that it was unacceptable that both of the major parties in our country were committed to policies that would undermine our economy and offend out values.
We knew it didn’t have to be that way.
We believed that we could win the debate in our party.
A year later, Labour policy has changed.
Last year our policy was to leave the customs union, now it is to stay in the customs union.
Last year Labour policy would have taken us out of single market agencies like Euratom for example now the policy is to stay in.
Last year our policy would have meant a hard border in Northern Ireland, now it is clear that our party, the party that 20 years ago delivered the Good Friday Agreement, will never support the imposition of a hard border and risk a return to the violence and division of the past.
This is the debate that we are winning. It is the debate we have to win. The debate about what kind of country Britain should be.
Which brings me to my second point. The debate is not yet won, Labour has not yet fully committed to the single market.
And if we are honest we know what the main obstacle we face is. Free movement. Immigration.
Unfortunately, there are still those in our party who say that the right of each young person in our country to travel, study or work freely across the continent of Europe is a curse not a blessing.
But they are wrong.
So, the next couple of months must see us redouble our efforts. If the concern is making our country safe against traffickers and exploitation, we have a plan for that. If the concern is making sure we have properly staffed borders, able to secure the UK against those who would harm us, we have a plan for that.
And if the concern is low wages, we certainly have a plan for that. And that plan is robust, unforgiving enforcement of National Minimum Wage legislation, and a trade union membership card in the back pocket of every exploited worker in this country.
And if you are told the British people just don’t like immigrants, then please, call bullshit by its name. In fact, in 2017 fifty per cent of people in Britain thought that immigration was good for our country- and what’s more, that is rising. As Rob Ford has said ‘The positive shift in attitudes seems to be occurring across the political and social spectrum.’
And we in Progress will tell the truth: immigration has made our families and our country strong, and we should never be embarrassed to say so.
What’s more, the hate that killed my friend Jo Cox has been allowed to rise for too long. It has to be stopped.
And that brings me to my final point, the things that we believe are simply not up for debate.
And let’s be very clear about this.
There are people in our party who disagree with me on Brexit, and I will have that debate any day of the week.
There are people who disagree with me on the economy, and I will have that debate any day of the week.
But there are also people in our party who are antisemitic, and that is not a debate I will have.
Because in Progress we do not debate antisemitism, we fight it, we beat it and we kick the antisemites out of our party.
And that goes for the apologists for antisemitism too, and the apologists for war crimes, the spreaders of fake news, and the people who abuse Labour members online.
No tolerance for antisemities.
No tolerance for any racists.
No tolerance for any of them- enough is enough.
And that is a fight we will win as well.
So on every point, we see the impact that progressives in Labour are having.
Without progressives in the Labour party we would not be winning the debate on Brexit.
Without progressives in the Labour party we will not win the debates to come, on immigration, or on the economy, or on anything else.
And what is the point of being a progressive at all if not to assert that we will not debate with racists or conspiracy theorists, and we will not rest until they are kicked out of our party.
That is because progressive politics isn’t just a set of beliefs. Our ideas require something more of us: solidarity and action.
I know there are people who have quit the Labour party in recent weeks saying that they have had enough. But I listen to the heart-breaking testimony of Luciana Berger and Ruth Smeeth, and I know what my course of action is.
That those brave MPs were speaking about the abuse they have received from Labour members, should make us all feel ashamed.
But they were speaking from the Labour benches, and that should make us all feel proud.
So I say to everyone feeling despair in recent weeks, I understand that feeling. Each of us must make a decision based on our own conscience.
But here in Progress, the way we show our solidarity with our Jewish colleagues and friends is not by leaving our party in solidarity with them, it is by staying and fighting to make our party a place that is safe for Jewish people to come back home to.
But there are some who say we should start a new party. That the current circumstances force us to abandon Labour.
That, I do not understand.
Because the Labour party does not belong to any one group of people. It is a movement to represent the working people of Britain. It is a progressive idea which belongs to all of us.
We have a proud history of changing our country for better. We do that when we work together, across the breadth of our movement. By the strength of our common endeavour. And let me be absolutely clear: there are thousands of progressive labour members like me who will hold any future Labour government to account when it comes to our principles.
So if anyone thinks a Labour government means universal basic income rather than progressive early years education – forget it.
If anyone thinks a Labour government means subsidising wealthy students at the expense of those still in primary school – forget it.
And if anyone thinks a Labour government means reproducing Kremlin press releases instead of working with our progressive friends in Europe, then I am telling you: they can forget it.
So the next Labour government, with all our voices heard, will be better than any possible Tory government.
A Labour government would not allow British citizens to feel unwelcome in their own country.
A Labour government would not leave people sleeping on our streets, unable to find help.
A labour government would not let children rely on foodbanks to survive.
Any new party thwarts that ambition. But more than that, any new party cannot compete with our history, our values, or our movement.
So let me offer every single one of you in this room a suggestion.
When you next hear someone talking about a new party, I want you to ask them one simple question.
In which constituency do they intend this new party to stand for election?
Ask them that and come and tell me the answer.
And then we will both be on the first train to that town to campaign against them for the Labour candidate.
And what’s more, we will bring scores of Progress activists with us to make it beyond certain that they will lose.
Because more than anything we owe it to ourselves to be ambitious. There is a Britain for the making that is new and full of ideas. A Britain for the making where young people use all their unbounded creativity to start new kinds of businesses. There is a Britain for the making that uses education for both young and old to reach out and grab the chances that new technology lays before us.
It needs a Labour government, but it will only work if it has progressives in it.
Because believe it or not, the future of our country is multicultural, it’s young, it’s proudly international. It is progressive.
In British politics, it is the people in this room that want to abandon nostalgia in exchange for that new Britain. So be in no doubt, the future belongs to us.
And – having thought about it greatly over the past three years – I have concluded that there is not a single challenge that we now face that can be lessened by our despair. We cannot, anymore, just sit as Shakespeare said, like patience on a monument, smiling at our grief.
It is time to move forward.
Because the Labour party is more than just a political party.
It is more even than a political family, although it has been my political family for all my life.
It is the crucible of our hope.
Giving up on it means giving up on hope itself- and that is something I will never do.
Alison McGovern MP is chair of Progress. She tweets @Alison_McGovern
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