Harriet Harman

Labour Member of Parliament for Camberwell & Peckham

Speech to the TUC Congress dinner – 09/09/2013

Speech to the TUC Congress dinner – 09/09/2013

It is great to be here again - but we meet in particularly difficult and challenging times.

And it is when things are most difficult and most challenging for people out there that we – the trade union and Labour movement – must stick together.

The historic link between the party and the trade union movement has protected people and delivered things that we are all immensely proud of: the NHS; the minimum wage; the right to maternity leave.

Ours is a deep-rooted and historic link but it is a relationship which has never been set in stone and is always changing. The thing that has endured is that our unity is the bulwark against reaction and the only hope for progress.

I am proud of the link between the Labour party and the trade unions. I do not want it weakened. Nor does Ed. We want to see it strengthened and deepened. That is what is at the heart of our plans for party reform.

I know there are some of you who have concerns about the path we are embarking upon but let's be clear about why Ed has taken this decision.

We do need to re-evaluate and re-new our relationship with members because it is that link which matters so much – especially in these tough economic times.

And let’s be honest, the Labour party and the trade union movement has nothing to lose and everything to gain - from a more meaningful, direct relationship with individual members - not just a relationship between structures and organisation.

I know that there are some genuine concerns about the plans and I know that sometimes in the past you've got things right and we've got things wrong.  For example, as well as repairing masses of council homes we should have built more new ones. And we should have stopped the undermining and the exploitation when you've got someone working next to an agency worker earning £5 less per hour.

 There are difficult decisions that we have to work through ahead of our special conference next March. But how we go about it, is important. We must remember who gains from any falling out and any division.

And we need to remember that fundamentally we're fighting for the same things - that we are on the same side.

If we don't have unity, there is going to be winners and losers. The winners will be the Tories and the losers will be our constituents and your members. This is a dangerous moment.

The change that Ed Miliband is proposing is not to weaken the relationship between Labour and the trade unions – it is to make it a reality - especially at local level.

Let's work together to shape and deliver that change.

Because, unlike the Tories who are bankrolled by a handful of millionaires - we are a movement of millions of working men and women up and down this country.

I've always worked closely with the trade union movement.

And I know that trade unionists, whether or not they're affiliated to the Labour Party, feel the world is hostile to them.

This was brought home to me when I took part in the TUC Women's Summer School in July.

I asked the women what people say when they tell them what they do - that they are a trade union official. Around the room there was a hollow laugh.

One woman said "It’s alright with my friends because they know what I do, but I wouldn't dare mention it if I was out for a drink."


What kind of a society are we living in, if people who are standing up for people at work, who are day in day out protecting people from discrimination and exploitation, can't even say what their job is.

But the other thing that was so sad, is that in answer to my next question they told me quite clearly that it feels to them, as if Labour too is against them.

That was a stark reminder to me that we all have to reconnect. So, one of the promises that I made to those women is that I would spend some time work shadowing one of them.

And I did that last week with Rosie, who represents 900 Unison members at Kings College Hospital.

At her advice surgery with Vicky, her regional official, I saw her sorting out thorny, difficult problems with such skill, commitment and compassion - I thought Ban Ki Moon could learn a thing or two.

We often say that the trade union movement is like having a strong friend at work - and that's exactly what Rosie is. On their side when they feel totally alone - and strong - because she's respected by the management.

In many ways she's an ordinary woman - a medical secretary - a Peckham mum with two kids.

But the work this woman does is extraordinary - her members said to me that she's a lifeline for them and because of that she inspires them

And what she's doing, is not just making a reality of the good practice that the hospital is committed to, it’s protecting the people at the bottom - who without the union are powerless.

But of course, it’s not just Rosie. This extraordinary work is being carried out by men and women trade unionists in thousands of work places up and down the country.

And when the Tories attack trade unions, it is people like Rosie who they are demonising - and we will stand up for them.

Because we know with the Tories - its one rule for them and another for their rich friends - and another for everyone else.

The rich will harder if you cut their taxes - the poor will work harder if you slash their benefits.

Under-occupation of a mansion - and you have to be protected from a mansion tax. Under-occupation of a council home - and you either have to pay the bedroom tax or be evicted.

Three years into this Tory led government, we all know what's happening. Despite George Osborne's gloating that plan A's succeeded - there's a huge gap between his reality and the reality of people's lives

The truth is your members and our constituents are under pressure from all sides.

The cruelty of the bedroom tax. The insecurity of zero hours contracts. The worry that their wages stagnate as prices keep rising. The lack of opportunity for young people.

Their need for us to be strong and united has never been greater. And they need just one thing from us - to kick this miserable, oppresive government out. 

So - whatever our differences - that is what we must do.

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