Grenfell scandal reeks of the worst of Britain – Alison McGovern speech

Alison McGovern

This is the full text of the speech that Alison McGovern, Progress chair, delivered to their annual conference today. 

Thanks to Conor, Progress team etc.

First I want to talk about Richard Angell.

I don’t always know how to describe exactly what I stand for.

But when I heard Richard’s words after the terrible terrorist attack on London Bridge, I knew in he had defined, not just what I believe, but the principles of Progress:

“If me having a gin and tonic with my friends, flirting with handsome men, hanging out with brilliant women is what offends these people so much, I’m going to do it more, not less”

Richard – your defiance in the face of terror, your celebration of diversity in the face of deep prejudice, and, primarily, your spirited defence of British values, where happiness, and a spectacular love of life, will always triumph against a twisted death cult, reminds us all who we are and where we belong.

That is what Progress means. A country where everyone can express their love and their kindness. And if we didn’t know it before recent months, we can see it now: this is our country. Full of British love and British kindness.
Richard, we salute you, and everyone who has defied terror. You didn’t just experience an awful attack and defend yourself. You changed the terms of debate. No sombre tones, but loud and clear pride in who we are.

And speaking of pride, when it comes to fighting elections recently, Progress is second to none. Our members were out in hundreds of seats, across the country, during the election.

Look at the results:

Holding vital seats like Ashfield, Dudley, Barrow and Furness

Wes Streeting in Ilford North- Labour majority 10,000

Peter Kyle in Hove- Labour majority 18,000

That is what happens when the Labour family comes together. Old members and new. Enthusiasm and experience coming from every direction. We campaigned together, by learning from each other and picking a fight with the Tories.

And millions of people voted for an optimistic agenda, proving that Britain is not the mean, insular, afraid country that some believed we were.

Now I know you have been discussing the election all morning and I won’t spend too long on it now.

Except to say that it is true that as my predecessor as Progress chair, John Woodcock has said “we would not have got over the line without the way Jeremy Corbyn inspired young people and some former non-voters to get active and vote Labour”.

Yet it is also true that as we gained Kensington and Canterbury we lost Mansfield and Middlesbrough.

Our vote increased massively in places like Brighton and Reading but our majorities were slashed in much of Yorkshire and the East Midlands. We should take our time to understand it.

But whatever the analysis, I believe, in experiencing this election, what I felt was the strength of labour values.

Across our movement people joined together in our campaign not because they all shared one belief about an individual. About one person.

Rather, they came together because they believed in a simple thing. They believed that the Tory Government since 2010 has left too many people in our country out. It has been brutal to those who need help, and a disaster for those not already wealthy, not already privileged.

That is what I think can, at present, be understood from the election. But now we must move on. Our eyes must be on our country and what the Tories are doing to it.

Because scores of people are dead.

They are dead in a housing block run by the state. By the government. Their families are suffering a heartbreak from which – I know – they will never recover.

And thousands more across the country are wondering if there are enough police to keep them safe, should the worst happen to them.

Hundreds of thousands of people are stretched to breaking point financially.

And millions of people in Britain are having to face the fact that if they fall and break a limb, there may not be an ambulance to come and get them.

Our country is brave, but there is much to fear.

Let me focus on the Grenfell fire for a moment. I believe that the fundamental problem we have is which people, in Britain, are heard.

I will explain.

Rich people live in tall buildings. Plenty of them do. So why are these buildings safe and not Grenfell house? Here in London, there are tall buildings all around us. But which ones are most likely to be unsafe?

Those where people on low incomes live.

Just try getting a fire door fixed if your council has chosen not to prioritise your housing maintenance but instead to give already wealthy people a council tax cut. That’s the reality.

A Tory council handing money back to the richest residents, while Labour councillors are desperate to help and Labour councils are having to deal with the worst of the cuts.

And the thing is, those Tories never hear the voice of those they look down upon. People are disregarded because they have less money, less influence, less power.

Put the state in the hands of politicians who are wilfully negligent to the fortunes of those unlike themselves and these are the disasters that ensue.

This horrific episode in the history of social housing scars us all. And to me, it reeks of the worst of Britain.

It is painfully evident that a group of people that should have been listened to were not. Hear the residents who’ve spoken out already and the anger is clear. The stench of wilful ignorance from those who should have listened is all around.

Worse still, I saw with my own eyes, in the Southwark council ward I used to represent, what I believe should have been the warning sign that stopped the Grenfell tower fire.

In 2009, when Lakanal house burned, six people died. Three women, and three children. Two who were mothers and one just a three week old girl. I cannot forget them.

Eight years on, many more women, many more men, many more children are dead.

So how did those deaths in Camberwell fail to stop more deaths in Kensington? We don’t know the whole answer yet. But we do know what has happened to the state between 2009 and today.

We know that the Tory government has too often turned away from those who needed it, not towards them.

400,000 more children living in poverty since 2010.

100,000 more pensioners who can’t make ends meet.

Rough sleeping up by 133 per cent.

All of this while the economy is stalling, wages are flat, debt is spiralling and deficit targets are missed year after year.

This is what Conservative government is.

If you feel within you, like I feel within me, the burn of frustration and the hot tears of anger, I believe you are right to.

We should all be angry now.

Forgive me then if my focus today isn’t on internal Labour issues. Our attention must be reserved for this Tory government and how we defeat it.

Just for a second, let us remind ourselves of what the Tories – before the election – had planned for our country:

No reversal of the inheritance tax cuts for the richest, but a cut of 7 per cent in per pupil spending in our schools.

Corporation tax down again to 17 per cent while thousands of NHS nurses still struggle under a pay freeze.

And keeping a £3bn cut to work allowances, with child poverty set to rise by a further 1.2million in the next five years.

This is the future that Theresa May has mapped out for Britain.

We couldn’t stand for it. We couldn’t live with it. So, we fought back.

And whilst we did not win, we have stopped the Tories in their tracks.

Millions of people voted Labour and because of those votes the Tory plan to take our education system back to the

1970s with new grammar schools will not happen.

Because of those votes the poorest children in our country will not have their free school lunches taken away from them.

And because of those votes the plan to bring back barbaric fox hunting has been dropped forever.

During the election, and now with the Grenfell tower block fire, we have seen real and furious anger at Theresa May.

And I want to talk about why. The root cause.

She is arrogant. Theresa May assumes she is entitled to power. She thought she was entitled to a huge majority, and that all she had to do to get it was to turn up on polling day. Unlucky for her. But her arrogance is not just a cause of woe to the Tories themselves, it is a cause of woe for all of us.

In Britain, in every town, the story is the same.

More people in hardship. Fewer teachers in our schools, fewer police on our streets. The safety net is hanging by a thread.

And across the world, our reputation of standing for the common interest, the common good, has been ruined.

Trashed by a Tory party that has finally given in to the anti-Europe mania that has obsessed the insular hard-right sect that it has harboured for too long.

And the root cause of it is this.

The Tories are blind to the lives of anyone but themselves. They are arrogant. And the woman who diagnosed the disease – the Nasty Party – has reinfected the patient.

So how do we respond?

Our eyes must be on the present. Our country is hurting. The state has been left threadbare and people are falling day after day after day with no one to pick them up.

I tell you this. Their arrogance cannot stand unchallenged. It cannot stand. It cannot stand. The Labour party was created to stop this, created to fix it, created to get people a voice and get them heard where power lies.

We all came together because we are the people who cannot be happy when we know there are too many that are unhappy.

We are not comfortable when we know others simply cannot be comfortable through lack of money or lack of status.

We came together here because our success is defined by whether others may also succeed. Being happy on your own is no happiness at all.

Our Labour values are love. That’s what they are, and we cannot sit idle if this love is a goal unfulfilled.

We have an urgent job. There is no time to waste.

So there are three things I think we must do, three things to campaign for in the weeks and months ahead.

First – public services.

The all-out assault the Tories have launched on the state since 2010 has gone far enough.

The school cuts must stop, and we must campaign to make it happen.

Our NHS staff have had a real terms pay cut year after year. The health service cannot take it any longer. They need a pay rise and we must make it happen.

And unless we want child poverty worse than under Thatcher, the tax credit freeze must end to.

And these things can change.

The Tories have no majority in parliament.

In every budget, every piece of legislation, every vote there are opportunities to make life a little better for the people we seek to serve.

Labour MPs will be there on the Commons’ green benches, in those committees and those late night votes- and we need your support.

Second, Brexit.

Let’s be clear with everyone.

There is no deal that is ‘just like the single market, but not the single market’.

Leavers and Remainers alike want the prevaricating to stop.

The only way to trade on the same terms as now is to stay in the single market.

Leaving means curtailing our freedom. It means undermining our prosperity. It means cutting off the funding for our public services.

It’s simple really. The best anti-austerity policy in this country today is remaining in the single market- we must fight for it.

We know that out of the single market and with net immigration cut to the tens of thousands there would be billions less to spend on schools, hospitals and policing.

But for too long we have allowed the forces of conservatism to blame immigration for every ill our country faces.

But it is a lie. It has always been a lie. And a lie is about to cost us our place in the world’s biggest trading bloc.

Our country has been made strong by immigration, not weak, and it is no patriotism, no patriotism at all, to stir up fear and resentment by pretending otherwise.

So here’s the choice.

Fight to stay in the single market, reform freedom of movement along with others, and then argue over the distribution of growing wealth in our country.

Or crash out of the single market, and fight about how to stop the absolute poorest in our society becoming even more destitute as the economy falters.

Like it or not, that is the choice.

I know which side I am on, don’t you?

Many in our party feel the same and I would ask you all to join the campaign to keep Britain in the single market.

The talks have already started, the decisions that will shape the future of our country for generations to come are being made.

The time for the courage of our convictions is now.

It is time to remind these Tory eurosceptics that their opinions are not the only ones that count. The government now have no mandate for their vision of Brexit. Their weakness should give us strength.

Third, we must bring Britain back together.

The people trying to divide our country do not speak for Britain. They never have, they never will, and we will not let them succeed.

The last few years have been turbulent for our country.

But the response we have seen to the attacks of the last few months are a powerful reminder of the instinct of the British people to look after each other. Call it the blitz spirit. Call it keep calm and carry on. Call it More In
Common. We know who we are.

When people have tried to divide us from each other, we have held each other even tighter.

But this unity must be worked at and we must all do more.

We have been badly served by an arrogant government that has put party interest over national interest time and time again- stirring up division and resentment. Between Unionists and Nationalists. Leavers and Remainers. Young and old.

Public and private. Those born in this country and those who have come here to work, learn and live.

Every time putting party ahead of country.

But for us, as my friend Liz Kendall once said, the country always comes first.

Now we need to take on these divisions – people who are being left out must be heard – and we must be the people to make it happen.

The people of Britain do not want to be divided and we must shout that loud and clear. It shouldn’t matter where you come from or what your name is, Britain is for you.

That’s why we – in our Labour family – never for one moment assume we are entitled to power. We listen to people.

We understand where they are coming from. We put them first.

This is, in the end, what the Labour party is for: changing who gets to be heard.

Not the arrogant, entitled, careless, dismissive Tories, who exploit division and see only the privileged few. But the many in our country who want better for us all.

Our job now is to change who gets to speak. Whose voice speaks for Britain.

And when we do. We will win.

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