“Britain at its best is a beating heart of progress” – David Lammy’s full speech

David Lammy
© David Woolfall/CC BY 3.0

Below is the full text of the speech delivered this morning by Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy to the annual Progressive Britain conference.

I am so pleased to be giving a speech to an audience of progressives today. It makes a change from speaking in the commons facing the opposite. Backwards Tories too busy defending the indefensible, enriching their mates with dodgy contracts, looking at tractors and god knows what else to put the British public first. It has become unfashionable for politicians to say it but I am proud to be speaking in London. A city which at its best is the centre of the world. A place in which over two-hundred-and-fifty languages are spoken. Where more than £500bn of value is created each year. And in which 300,000 taxi rides are taken every single day.

It’s a city I’ve lived in for my whole life. One which invited my parents, as part of the Windrush generation to live and work in it half a century ago. The descendants of slaves to the British Empire they would never have believed that their son would one day have a shot at becoming Foreign Secretary. I only have this chance because of the openness that is at the core of this nation. The spirit of progressiveness that has defined the UK at our best moments. That we are here to celebrate today.

When we stood up for our values in the Second World War defending democracy, freedom and the rule of law. When Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web in 1989 triggering the communications revolution that has transformed our lives. And when Britain led the world in coordinating a global response to the 2008 financial crisis under the masterful statesmanship of Gordon Brown. Britain at its best is a beating heart of progress. At home and abroad.

That is why it hurts all of us in this room to be led by a law-breaking liar like Boris Johnson who is pulling our country backwards while laughing at us. He talks about levelling up the North but we know for every £13 they’ve taken away from these communities, they are giving just £1 back. Meanwhile London, which includes Tower Hamlets, Hackney and Newham, areas with some of the highest poverty rates in the country is being levelled down, not up.

For too long, out of power, stuck in opposition, we have allowed the Conservatives to vandalise our nation. And undermine some of the last Labour government’s greatest achievements. Being reckless with peace in Northern Ireland. Trying to scrap the Human Rights Act. And giving up Britain’s soft power by ending our commitment to spend 0.7% on international aid.

Fortunately, conference, the public have begun to sense that Boris Johnson’s time is up. The vultures in his cabinet are circling but they are almost as flawed as the Prime Minister. As the fantastic results in the local elections show the public are looking at us, Keir Starmer’s Labour Party as a potential party of government. That can offer them security, prosperity and respect. I know everyone in this room will agree with me when I say we’ve had enough of protesting, enough of shouting slogans. Now is the time for us to get into power and change peoples’ lives for the better once again.

We know a better future is possible. Last week was a turning point that proves it. Wandsworth had been run by the Tories since 1964. We won it. Wandsworth had been run by the Tories since 1978. We won it. Barnet had always been run the Tories. But we won it for the first time. And it’s not just in London where we made progress. We won in Cumberland. We made gains in Scotland and secured a landslide in Wales. Right across the country. These results show without doubt we are back and ready to win again.

Conference, the great story of the 20th century is one of how different groups the working class, people of colour, women, LGBT+ took to the streets to secure the rights long denied to them. But we are here today because we know the journey towards a progressive Britain is not over. We believe the arc of history bends towards truth towards justice and equality but that there is more bending left to do. I am proud to be working together with a tremendous shadow cabinet on this mission.

Some are here today. Pat McFadden will talk about the policies he and Rachel Reeves have created to transform our economy to protect working people and fight the climate crisis. Bridget Phillipson will share her vision for an education system that gives every young person the chance to succeed. But it is my job to ensure that Labour can restore Britain’s reputation and influence on the global stage.

At the heart of this challenge is articulating a progressive foreign policy. A foreign policy designed to improve lives – and spread our values – at home and abroad. Before we begin talking about our approach to other countries we must start by getting our own house in order. For more than a decade, the Conservatives have been in hock to Russian oligarchs allowing their dirty money to pollute the UK economy, our politics and institutions.

For any change to happen, Ministers had to be dragged through the lobby to rush through legislation that should have been passed years ago. We welcome the measures we forced them into but many were too weak. The job is only half done. We must finally shut down the London laundromat. Ending the age of impunity not only for Russian oligarchs but for all the corrupt elites that use Britain as a base for hiding stolen money. It is inexcusable that the government still has not acted on the recommendations of the Russia Report or fixed Companies House which allows criminals to shield their ill-gotten gains.

The war in Ukraine changed the world forever. Vladimir Putin’s crime of aggression has triggered what I believe will be a greater geopolitical shift than 9/11. But Ukrainians have defended their homeland with huge courage. Russian forces, drunk on government propaganda, may have expected to be greeted as liberators but were forced to retreat from the gates of Kyiv. The consequences of Putin’s invasion show it has failed on its own terms. Thousands of Russian casualties. The Ukrainian President an emblem for democracy. The West united. NATO strengthened. Russia isolated at the UN.

But we cannot be complacent. Russia can still win this war as it enters a dangerous new stage. Russia has refocused its offensive in South and Eastern Ukraine. Fighting will remain bloody and intense. A progressive foreign policy means standing unshakably with NATO allies. Against dictatorship. Against imperialism. In defence of freedom. Ready to provide the military, economic, diplomatic and humanitarian assistance Ukraine needs. Keir Starmer’s Labour is clear. There is no place in our party for false equivalence between Putin’s aggression and NATO’s desire for peace through collective security and common defence.

But we must also focus on the longer-term because this conflict could go on for months or years. We must rewrite our foreign policy priorities to learn from the Conservatives’ mistakes. The government’s Integrated Review wrongly de-emphasised European security while they wasted billions of pounds of the defence budget. In government, Labour would halt planned cuts to the British Army. It extraordinary in these times that cuts are going ahead.

Not only this, we would put past Brexit divisions behind us and make Brexit work and end Boris Johnson’s era of clumsy diplomacy and use this moment to rebuild relations with European allies through a new UK-EU security pact. The government appears poised to do the opposite. To unilaterally break the agreement they negotiated, they signed and they were elected on. Instead of finding practical solutions they are planning a trade war in a cost of living crisis.

Making Brexit work takes statecraft, diligence and graft, not Boris Johnson’s wrecking ball. People in Northern Ireland deserve a responsible government but instead we have a Prime Minister who can’t be trusted and a government willing to break international law. The implications of this go far beyond any checks and barriers in the Irish Sea. The government has repeatedly called on other countries to abide by international law and to stick to their commitments, be that Iran and the nuclear agreement, China and the joint declaration on Hong Kong, or Russia and the Budapest Memorandum. It is damaging to Britain’s reputation, to our country’s credibility and its moral authority, if we renege on our own agreements.

Do we want to make other countries hesitate when signing deals with us, out of fear we won’t keep our end of the bargain? Britain should be a country that keeps its word. This reflects who we are. A nation that stands for the rule of law. The best way to stand up for international law is to follow it. And this comes at the worst possible time. Europe is facing the most serious security crisis in a generation. There is a war on our continent. Millions have fled their homes. Countries have pulled together in support of Ukraine. It is wrong, short-sighted and ill-judged to seek divisions with our European allies as we face this common threat.

But as well as defending Europe from the dictator on our doorstep, we must not forget the other conflicts and crises around the world. Afghanistan has been out of the headlines since February’s invasion, but millions still face starvation. In Yemen, one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises, prices of essential food products are up 81 per cent. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues to lead to heart-breaking loss of life.

And the killing of the journalist Shireen Abu Akleh and the disgraceful scenes at her funeral remind us that there will not be a just and lasting peace until the occupation is brought to an end and both Israelis and Palestinians enjoy dignity, security and human rights, as part of a two-state solution. In the Horn of Africa, the horrific drought could put 20 million lives at risk. Soaring food prices and shortages threaten a global humanitarian catastrophe.

Labour would lead from the front to stop this. Working with the UN to organise an emergency global food summit to put food security at the very top of the agenda. Under the Conservatives, Britain has stepped back from its former leadership, cutting billions in aid and mismanaging the merger of our development and foreign office, leaving them less than the sum of their parts. It’s now almost two years since the Prime Minister announced the merger. But the FCDO still has no clear aid strategy, governance or funding settlement. This leaves us unable to deliver on the global stage. No wonder staff morale is at breaking point.

A Labour government would restore the 0.7% aid target, because while Ukraine needs all the support we can give it – it would be foolish to ignore other conflicts around the world, storing up problems for the future and ignoring mass loss of life. Restoring 0.7% will give the Foreign Office the flexibility it needs to step up. Now is the time to rebuild our soft power and be a beacon for our values around the world. Energy prices are already going through the roof. But we need to prepare for a further spike as Europe heads into next winter.

We can and must end our dependence on dirty fossil fuels. But our Prime Minister’s strategy to fill the gap of Russian energy has so far been to find new authoritarians and to beg them for oil instead. Whether in Iran or Saudi Arabia this is short-term thinking goes against the progressive values we hold. And it fails to learn the lessons of Putin. Fossil fuels empower the worst dictators. The only progressive form of energy independence is through clean energy. This is why a Labour government in Britain would invest in a Green recovery with £28 billion a year in green investment this decade.

Conference, a Progressive Britain needs a progressive foreign policy. One rooted in the values we believe in. The virtues we wish to promote. For too many years, we’ve been governed by a party who has made foreign policy transactional. Making short term calculations and often even getting these sums wrong. With Labour, the UK would finally have a foreign policy of which we can be proud. Rooting corruption and foreign interference out from our economy. Defending the security of our continent. Strengthening the institutions and alliances that protect us. Standing by our principles even when there is a whiff of oil. Investing in green technology for future generations. And aid for those facing starvation and conflict. Not only because this makes us safer, but because it is right. Together we can make an internationalist Britain fit for the future once again.

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