Below is the full text of Keir Starmer’s speech at the TUC Congress 2019.
Congress, thank you for that welcome. Mark – thank you for the introduction – and Frances – thank you for inviting me to speak today.
What a time for this Congress to meet. Parliament shut down, a general election on the horizon and at least 21 former Conservative MPs with a new-found interest in employment law and unfair dismissal.
We’ve had one hell of a week in parliament. We’ve had six votes – huge votes – and defeated Johnson six times.
And I want to record my thanks to everyone in the trade union movement for the support you’ve given on Brexit, to Jeremy and to me, and to the Labour Party. Not just in the last week – important though that was – but ever since the referendum.
Whether that was standing up for citizen’s rights, making the case for a Brexit deal that protects jobs and supports our manufacturing industry and making the case against Theresa May’s deal. We could have ducked those challenges. But instead we stood up for working people at every stage.
We did so working hand in hand with the trade union movement and the TUC. I’m hugely grateful for that. That’s the way the Labour Party should work: hand in hand with the trade union movement. In opposition and in power.
Congress, Look at what we’re up now against: Boris Johnson as Prime Minister. For years that was something we joked about, now it’s reality. A Prime Minister who has no conviction, who has appointed an ultra right-wing cabinet, who has no real regard for the truth, and who is now openly talking about breaking the law.
Hard to believe, but true – and dangerous. Because the Tories have given up being a serious party of government and they will not hesitate to tear apart our country’s values. Values of tolerance, dignity, equality, internationalism and solidarity. These values have no meaning for Johnson. And as he hurtles down this right wing Trumpian road, everyone has to ask themselves: ‘which side are you on?’.
That’s why over the summer we worked across parliament to build consensus for legislation to prevent no deal at the end of October. As of Monday, that is now law. It means that if the Prime Minister fails to get a Brexit deal by October 19 – as looks increasingly inevitable – or a mandate for no deal – which is equally unlikely – he will have to seek and accept an extension to Article 50.
The legal advice is clear that the Prime Minister must abide by this. I shouldn’t have to say this to the Prime Minister but sadly I do: Accept that parliament has spoken, accept you have no mandate for no deal, and be clear that you will follow the law.
Of course, it shouldn’t have to take an Act of Parliament, a Humble Address or rediscovering ancient procedures to make the Prime Minister act in the national interest. That it does speaks volumes for this government and this Prime Minister. Johnson now thinks that by shutting down parliament, he will shut us up. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Just as we worked throughout the summer to pass a law preventing no deal, so we will work each and every day we are shut down to enforce that law. To defeat Johnson time and again – and to bring him down. Prime Minister: you can hide from parliament for a few weeks. But when we return, we will be ready.
Congress, make no mistake about the seriousness of the situation we’re in. As your General Council statement says: “No deal would be a disaster for working people.” Nobody who values rights and protections or safeguarding jobs and living standards would ever contemplate taking this country out of the EU without a deal.
UK workers and trade unions wouldn’t be able to enforce existing EU-derived rights. Employment rights, environmental standards and consumer protections would lag behind EU levels. There would be no transition period, and no commitment to retain the level playing field protections we currently take for granted.
And the threat of no deal goes far behind cutting workers’ rights. It would decimate our manufacturing industries. Do huge damage to our NHS. Squeeze family incomes and cause higher food prices. Lead to medicine shortages. And cause chaos at ports and our border.
The government knows this, because their own Yellowhammer analysis confirms it. There is only one conclusion to draw. This Prime Minister and this government believe that’s a price worth paying. Brexit at any cost. With working people – as ever – collateral damage.
Congress, this Prime Minister isn’t negotiating seriously with the EU. He says the talks are “making progress” but nobody believes that. The government has had six weeks but hasn’t put forward any negotiating proposals.
The Irish government, the EU and even Amber Rudd have made that clear. The truth is the Prime Minister hasn’t the first idea how to strike a deal that would protect jobs and rights. Worse than that, he has no interest in doing so.
Because for the Conservative Party that has never been what Brexit is about. Look at the letter Prime Minister Johnson sent to President Tusk last month: “UK laws and regulations… will potentially diverge from the EU. That is the point of our exit.”
For the Tories that has always been the point of Brexit. To step off the level playing field, to deregulate our economy and privatise our public services. Labour and the trade unions have never accepted that – and we never will.
Congress, we have to stop no deal. Last week – we beat them in parliament and very soon we will have to beat them at the ballot box. That battle is coming. It cannot – and it should not – be put off for long.
We need a Labour government. A radical Labour government. A government that can pull this country back from the brink and transform our society and our public services.
I can’t think of a more crucial election than the one we are about to fight. Do we go down the route of no deal with all the consequences for working people or do we rebuild our economy, our society and our communities?
It is an election that will define this country for a generation. Brexit will of course be a crucial issue at this election. We have to draw a line under the wasted years of Tory rule and failed negotiations, we will have to break the deadlock and clean up the mess left by the Tories.
A referendum is the only way to do so. And that is why Jeremy was right to say at Congress yesterday that an incoming Labour government will commit to a referendum. And – of course – ‘remain’ should – and it will – be on the ballot paper, along with a credible option to leave.
We need to ask the public whether they are prepared to leave on the terms on offer or whether they would prefer to remain. And then we need to move onto the wider issues that matter to so many people in our communities and across our country.
The issues we all got into politics to address and that frankly we spend too little time talking about: a broken housing market, four million children in poverty, a collapsing health and care system, insecure work, the erosion of trade union rights, deepening inequalities – whether in health, wealth or opportunity, and a climate crisis that if not resolved will leave a lasting and damaging legacy for future generations.
I am delighted to see that these issues have been front and centre at this Congress. The Tories will never rise to these challenges, but we must. So, when the election comes – and with the whole trade union movement behind us – we can and we will defeat Johnson. Defeat his politics and install a radical Labour government.