This is the text of a speech in Coventry given today by Tom Watson, deputy leader of the Labour Party, at the launch of a document entitled “The Leave Campaign’s Hidden Agenda”.
It’s wonderful to be in Coventry. Thank you to Coventry Transport Museum for hosting us today. This city has a rich cultural and industrial heritage. And it is resilient. Coventry survived brutal recessions – including the last one – because of the endurance, skill, resourcefulness and ingenuity demonstrated by the working people of this city.
I passionately believe the interests of every single one of those working people are best served by voting to remain in the European Union on June 23.
And that’s what I want to talk about today.
For me the answer to the question: should the UK remain in the EU? is an emphatic, unqualified and unequivocal ‘yes’.
Let me explain why. Because it really is quite simple.
It is Europe that has protected, enhanced and extended the rights of working people in the UK for a generation or more.
It is Europe that guaranteed a minimum amount of paid holiday; enshrined paternity leave and maternity leave in law; gave part-time agency workers the same rights as their full-time colleagues; ensured that no one working seven days straight should have to work an eighth day without at least 24 hours rest.
It is Europe that passed legislation, which gives workers a 20-minute break for every six hours of work.
Many of those measures were introduced as part of the Social Chapter, a piece of legislation that is detested and derided by the Tory right with a venomous disdain that betrays the real agenda they’d pursue if Britain voted to leave.
I’ll say more about that later.
But it is worth reminding ourselves now that the Tories can hardly even say the words “social chapter” without sneering. And that it was a Conservative government that left British workers vulnerable in 1992, when they opted out of the social chapter adopted by our EU colleagues and partners.
That’s why I’m proud the last Labour Government introduced the Social Chapter in full in 1997 – in the teeth of fierce opposition from the Tories.
They call it restrictive Red Tape. I say it created the minimum conditions every worker in a modern, civilised society should expect.
The right for part-time workers to be treated in the same way as full-time workers was introduced in 2000 thanks to trade union campaigning in Europe.
A total of 8.5 million people in the UK benefit directly, including just under 700,000 people who work part-time here in the West Midlands.
There is no guarantee that those protections will remain in place if the “Leave” campaigners win the argument and the UK votes to leave the EU.
You may think no Government would risk being punished at the ballot box by removing rights enjoyed by so many workers. But not long ago this Tory government floated the idea of asking workers to give up employment rights in exchange for receiving a small number of shares in the company they work for.
So my message to anyone who thinks they wouldn’t shelve these protections is a blunt one: Don’t be so naïve. The Tories are itching to get rid of them.
In fact, it only was Labour that prevented David Cameron from placing the hard-won rights of British workers on the table as part of his face-saving renegotiation in Brussels.
Because there is no doubt that he wanted to.
He told the House of Commons in August last year: “everything is on the table”.
The Prime Minister’s friends in big business were urging him to bargain away the rights of British workers in Brussels. His enemies on the right of his own party and his rivals around the cabinet table were demanding that he did so too.
The trade unions also deserve the country’s congratulations and gratitude for the role they played in preventing any watering down of social protections in that renegotiation.
They reminded their members of the real benefits membership of the EU brings to working people. And they did so when he Tory Government was unleashing the most brutal and sustained attack on organised labour I’ve witnessed in my political lifetime.
So will continue to stand shoulder to shoulder with our trade union colleagues as they fight the Tories’ unfair, unjustified, and undemocratic assault on their finances and their right to organise.
Labour is united as a party and a movement on the question of Europe – unlike the Tories. 213 of our 232 MPs support a ‘remain’ vote.
And our party leader will be making a major speech very soon setting out in more detail why we should remain.
So to the small number of Labour MPs who are campaigning to leave the EU – I respectfully disagree with you.
And to the handful who are yet to make up their mind about which side to support I say this: there’s still time to do the right thing by disagreeing with them and agreeing with me.
I would also remind them that nearly every major union supports our membership of the European Union. And every major union is campaigning for the UK to remain in the EU.
TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady says: “The bulk of the rights at work that matter to us originated in Europe. A Brexit would have massive implications for jobs, rights, and the very fabric of the UK. If you take that floor away, workers will be worse off.”
Tim Roache, the new General Secretary of the GMB, says Europe, although not perfect: “has given us the most progressive employment legislation in the country bar none.”
And Len McCluskey has said, that whilst he wants reforms to the EU,
“it is undeniable…that for millions of UK workers and their families the EU is the best hope for their jobs and fundamental rights. Our communities clearly benefit from the investment and trade links that come with being part of the EU. And our working people are in increasing need of the employment rights that flow from membership. Rest assured that outside of the EU, left at the mercy of a Conservative government, these protections will be swept away.”
I can recall the moment when the union movement decided to embrace the EU project with genuine enthusiasm.
Nearly 30 years ago, the then-president of the European Commission Jacques Delors came to the Trade Union Congress to make a speech.
I’ve been in Labour politics for a long time, and not many speeches make the kind of impact that this one did. Delors told the trade unions that the TUC policy at the time – that we should withdraw from the European Community – was a mistake.
He said the EC, as it was then called, was not the “bosses” club’ of mythology and that the EU could provide a “social Europe”, which offered real protection for working people.
In the depths of the long, dark night of Thatcherism, and after the defeat of the miners, this was music to the ears of those union general secretaries and their delegations.
So it is hardly surprising they gave this unassuming man from Paris a standing ovation, or that the TUC subsequently passed a motion to support the EC, as it then was, with little opposition.
As the late, great Ron Todd of the old Transport & General Workers Union said: “the only card game in town is in a town called Brussels”.
And it’s been true from that moment on.
The Labour Party in the late-80s followed where the TUC had led, and rediscovered its credentials as a pro-European party, demonstrating the confidence that was one of the hallmarks of a previous generation of Labour leaders who created NATO, the United Nations and the great institutions of the post-war world.
The benefits of that decision have flowed to workers ever since.
They include the right to equal pay for women, which is underpinned by EU law; safeguards against sex discrimination at work, where EU law also underpins UK law and, protection for workers facing outsourcing, privatisation, and changes of employer.
I could list many more.
The former Australian Labor Leader Bob Hawke once said the difference between a Labour Government and a Conservative Government may only sometimes seem like a few inches, but they matter if that’s the few inches where you live.
This list of rights and safeguards may seem marginal to some – but if you’re pregnant, or part-time, or a parent, or your employer is a privatised, parsimonious penny-pincher – then these rights mean the world to you.
So make no mistake – these rights matter. They change lives.
And they save lives.
Excessive hours were identified as the direct cause of the Clapham Junction rail disaster, in which 35 people died and 500 people were injured in December 1988.
Accidents happen, but fatigued and overworked workers make tragic incidents like that more likely.
The number of accidents at work in the UK fell from over 183,000 in 2008 to 160,000 in 2013.
And yet the Tories and the UKIPers and the Brexiters reserve a special sort of disdain for any rules that make the workplace safer.
Chris Grayling seems particularly incensed by this idea.
He regularly rails against health and safety regulations. And his words have consequences. When he was Justice Secretary he made if far harder for workers to get access to industrial tribunals.
So let’s be absolutely clear: these are the rights that the Tory and UKIP ‘out’ crowd – Grayling, Iain Duncan Smith, Michael Gove, Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson – want to take away from British working people.
That’s the true agenda of the five Tory figures who are beating the anti-EU drum most loudly.
If they were a pop band – it’s unlikely I know – they’d be called Wrong Direction.
Because that’s the direction in which they want to take the UK.
The wrong direction on workers’ rights – because they can’t wait to rip up safeguards that were first put in place a generation ago.
The wrong direction on our place in the world – because they want us to rescind our membership of one of the world’s most powerful trading blocks.
And the wrong direction on manufacturing and trade – because they would make it harder for British companies to access the world’s largest single market of over 350mn people.
That’s their Eurovision.
I am launching a document today about the Leave camp’s real agenda. It includes plenty of statistics and quotes.
You can read it at your leisure, but I will share one statement with you now. It’s a quote from Boris Johnson, who said this about Europe in 2012: “Boil it down to the single market. Scrap the social chapter.”
That uncharacteristically succinct statement from London’s Mayor sums up why he and his fellow ‘out’ campaigners want to leave the EU.
They want to see a UK in which employers have more freedom to sack workers at will and employees can be bullied or pressurised into working longer hours. They want to turn back the clock and remove the protections a Labour government introduced and the European Union guarantees.
There is only one way to prevent that happening – vote “remain” on June 23.
Our membership of the EU is not just about guarantees and safety at work, of course.
It’s about the broader economy. There is no doubt that our membership of the EU has had a positive impact on British trade, British jobs, and British business.
And it will continue to do so. I want to live in a country with a sound, modern, innovative manufacturing base.
I want the next generation of British scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs to be able to stand on a strong platform of British manufacturing.
I want an active industrial policy that supports manufacturing of every kind, from our defence industries to the technologies that are being developed to cut carbon.
I want a regional development policy, so that towns like Redcar and Port Talbot are not left to rust, so that we invest in the workers who have built our nation’s prosperity.
I want universities linked to businesses, just as they are here in Coventry and Warwick, so that British graduates have the skills and experiences to compete with their counterparts from Beijing or Delhi.
This is not driven by a nostalgic desire to preserve the manual jobs of the past. This is about survival in the age of automation, about prospering in an age of robots and drones.
We are a heartbeat away from driverless vehicles delivering our groceries, automatic vendors serving our perfect cup of coffee, and machines that can diagnose our diseases and manufacture and prescribe the drugs to treat us.
We are on the cusp of the second machine age, which will upend our world and deliver changes to our lives and to our livelihoods every bit as seismic and dramatic as those created by the industrial revolution.
That will create huge opportunities.
As the world transforms, as cities and continents rise, as technology liberates us, as our life expectancies soar, as our children look out across this new world, we should celebrate the opportunity of being part of a continent-wide bloc of nations.
Here in the Midlands, we know more than most the benefit our membership of the EU brings.
Here, in the beating heart of British manufacturing, in the region that was globally renowned as the workshop of the world, we know how important it is that we remain part of a market of 360 million people.
It’s important for local companies like Jaguar Land Rover, and those they employ.
The UK sells 50 per cent of all its exports to the EU. The EU invests £11bn a year on manufacturing innovation programmes, of which 15 per cent is invested here in the UK.
And because of our position as the gateway to Europe, we are the leading destination for foreign investment in the EU.
I mentioned the steelworkers of Port Talbot just now.
Like you, my thoughts are with every single steelworker and their families. The human cost of closure is too much to bear. We stand in solidarity with those steel communities.
For decades they gave us the material which built the battleships and bridges and buildings that shaped our history. Now they deserve a Government which can safeguard their future.
I believe we are far better placed to do that as part of the European Union.
It was the European Union that proposed placing steep tariffs on Chinese steel, just as America has done, to prevent it dumping cheap steel here in Europe. But it was the UK Government that argued against it.
The European Union gives us the tools to protect vital strategic industries like steel but our Government refuses to use them.
Our absentee Business Secretary Sajid Javid, has to accept his share of the blame.
Even when officials at the European Union are saying it is acceptable to impose the highest possible tariffs on Chinese steel in order to protect our industry, Sajid Javid was incapable of taking “yes” for an answer.
We need tough negotiators, willing to stand up for Britain’s interests, ready to take decisive action.
Mr Javid, I’m afraid that’s not you.
After the global financial crash, the Labour Government took a strategic stake in the banks to prevent them closing their doors and shutting down the cashpoints in every high street.
And it worked. The banking system remained in place. A severe crisis was not allowed to become a full-on disaster.
We did it then, not to help bankers, but to help every British family that relied on banks. Mr Javid should appreciate that – because before he went into politics he was a banker himself.
But he is a free market ideologue who is implacably opposed to the notion that the state can ever be a force for good.
This won’t surprise you – but I have a different view. A very different view. I agree with Peter Mandelson.
He said last week that Port Talbot could be temporarily nationalised until a buyer is found. But more tellingly, Peter also said this is a pivotal moment for the UK when we decide whether Britain is a manufacturing nation, or not.
I believe to close down our manufacturing industries at the very moment when the world is entering a new machine age, would be an historic folly at which future generations will marvel.
Before I conclude, let me set out how our EU membership can help us end the scourge of tax avoidance, and deal with similar abuses of power by wealthy individuals and global corporations that transcend national borders.
It is only be acting globally that we can hope to tackle unethical behaviour of the kind exposed this week by the leaked Panama papers. The EU has led the way on tax avoidance by coordinating the international drive to crack down on the individuals and institutions who hide money offshore.
The EU has established tax co-operation procedures amongst its own member states.
And in the wake of the HSBC Swiss tax scandal, the EU signed tax transparency agreements with havens such as Switzerland, Lichtenstein, San Marino, Monaco and Andorra. The UK would not be part of these if we left the EU.
And the EU has been more prepared than many national governments – including our own – to take action against multinationals such as Fiat, Starbucks and Apple to ensure they pay their fair share of tax.
You can’t leave it to the Tories to tackle systemic tax avoidance. That would be like entrusting one of the Hatton Garden burglars with the key to your safety deposit box.
Yesterday evening, after day of obfuscation, denial and sidestepping, we learned that David Cameron himself did benefit from an off-shore fund.
Hours earlier, it had emerged he wrote a 2013 letter to the European Union arguing that offshore trusts should not be subject to the same transparency rules as companies. The official who was leading the EU”s crackdown on tax avoidance said that left: “A huge loophole” in her plans.
That’s also why, it is now incumbent on the Prime Minister to reassure UK taxpayers by listing all the investments he held since becoming Tory leader. Only by stepping out of the shadows and into the sunlight will David Cameron be able to disinfect his sullied reputation.
Those Panama papers confirmed this week that when it comes to avoiding tax, half the Tory establishment are experts at it.
Lord Flight, Lord Mates and others all have questions to answer.
The EU has the power to prevent individuals hiding money off-shore, just as it used its power to enshrine and extended the rights of UK workers’ rights in law.
We have achieved a huge amount by working with our European allies and pushing for progressive reform of the European Union.
We will achieve a lot more if we continue to do that.
But we can only do that by leading – not leaving.