Richard Leonard MSP, Scottish Labour Leader – Speech to Conference 2019
09 March 2019
Richard Leonard MSP
Scottish Labour Leader
Speech to Conference
Thank you for that introduction Enas, and for your kind words. You represent what this great movement of ours is all about, and your campaigns today will be our policies tomorrow.
Comrades and friends good afternoon.
I want to start by also thanking you, for all of the work that you do, for all of the sacrifices that you make. And all because of your enduring belief that our cause, the cause of Labour, is the hope of the world.
Yesterday was International Women’s Day, and this year’s theme was “better the balance”. Which reminded me that Ann Henderson, from our executive,
had recently dug out a full page advertisement from the Scotsman newspaper. It was dated the 2nd of December 1994: so twenty-five years ago this year.
It was an appeal by people from across Scottish civic society for 50-50: For Equal Representation of women and men in Scotland’s Parliament.
And because it was in alphabetical order my name appeared in the advert between Johann Lamont and Helen Liddell, which even then was quite a scary place to be!
But it reminded me that we led the fight for equality then and I am determined that we redouble our efforts to lead the fight for equality now, so that we will go into the 2021 Scottish Parliament elections and we will go into any snap General Election with that same commitment to 50:50. Because we know that you cannot will the ends if you do not will the means.
And we know as well that each generation has to fight the same battles over and over again.
And we know that if we don’t keep pushing forward as a movement we will get pulled back.
And that is also why I was so proud when last year Lesley Laird was elected as Deputy Leader of the Scottish Labour Party. Lesley is the Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland. So her election was a statement of our intent as a party not just to win power in the Scottish Parliament but to win the next UK general election as well.
That is why I am also delighted to welcome to Dundee to the Scottish Labour Party Conference, the man I very much hope, sooner rather than later, will be our next Prime Minister, Jeremy Corbyn.
I first met Jeremy when he came to campaign with us in Scotland in the 1989 European Parliament elections. We won seven out of eight seats across Scotland in that election. Now, I’m not putting that all down to Jeremy…
And now he campaigns with us regularly in Scotland.
He demonstrates through his actions, not just his words, his personal commitment to a Labour government in Westminster that will never take the people of Scotland for granted.
Of course the Labour Party is not just about its leaders: In the end we are a movement, made up of people like my old comrade Jimmy Boyd. Jimmy sadly passed away just a few short weeks ago. He was a GMB member and a Labour councillor in Cumnock for many years. A man of strong views and a fighter for his principles, Jimmy did not serve himself, he served his community. Jimmy Boyd represented everything which is good about this party. And I am honoured that Jimmy’s youngest daughter, Lynne joins us today.
Lynne contacted me just before Christmas under Jimmy’s orders from his hospital bed. She said that her dad had minute books of the Cumnock Labour Party going back to the 1940s that he wanted me to have. In fact they are the minute books of the Cumnock branch of the Independent Labour Party going all the way back to the 1920s. They are an important part of Scottish Labour history.
But they also show that there is a lighter side to history. It is true that looking back 90 years some things have changed. So in the minute of the meeting held on the 17th of March 1929 it is recorded that a Party fundraiser was to be organised and two prizes to be obtained. Comrade McTurk, a box of 100 cigarettes and the branch chairman, Keir Hardie’s son in law, Emrys Hughes, one bag of potatoes.
They really knew how to throw a party in Ayrshire then.
But history can be instructive.
And two years later, in 1931, a motion was carried which declared that the branch was in favour of the ILP remaining affiliated to the Labour Party and, I quote,“is of the opinion that a split at this time would be disastrous.”
It is a timely and serious reminder that splits are damaging. Which is why I do not welcome people leaving the Labour Party – it is not a cause for celebration, it is cause for regret.
So can I say for the avoidance of doubt that under my leadership the Scottish Labour Party will remain a broad church.
The truth is we have always been a party built on traditions of Scottish radicalism and William Morris socialism, on Fabianism as much as Marxism, on people of religion and people without, on trade unionism, on feminism and on co-operation. We are a synthesis of all these ideas.
That is not our weakness as a party. It is our strength as a party.
So for the record: I do not denounce dissent in the Labour Party. In my book our socialism and our democracy are indivisible. So a tolerant and a democratic party is non-negotiable. But let me also say this it is a privilege to serve this Party in Parliament.
And it is a responsibility as well. Because no one is elected on their own efforts alone.
And there is something else that is non-negotiable. People say to me, are trade unions vital to the Labour Party’s success? Of course the trade unions are vital to the Labour Party’s success: it was the trade unions that created the Labour Party. That is what makes us who we are.
So let me start with the Michelin workers in this city. I met with them at the factory just a few weeks ago.
They are led by a good team of shop stewards like Davy Brady, Austin Knight, and Ally Stewart, and by their fulltime convenor, Marc Jackson who is here today. Marc, I want to take this opportunity on behalf of the Scottish Labour Party to thank you.
When I met them they told me how the Michelin is part of the fabric of this city. And if you ask a Dundonian about the factory, they will tell you how their dad, uncle, sister, brother, cousin or neighbour work there or have worked there. So the announcement last November was devastating. It left workers numb. Families worried. And a city in shock.
But there is a strong spirit of community here, with a strong sense of purpose. So much so that they are working to secure a future for the site a future that maintains high-skilled jobs.
So our message to Marc and the 850 Michelin workers is that you have the 100 per cent support of the Scottish Labour Party.
Because I tell you, that if the Labour Party cannot support working people who are fighting for their future, and for the future of the next generation, what else are we for?
When I met them they also told me that “Michelin did not close the factory. The market closed the factory.”
Comrades, this is a city, like so many other communities, where decent industrious people have been let down by the failed system where too much power rests in too few hands. Too often in faraway boardrooms. Which is why we do not say lightly that we do not just want better economic management – we want radical economic change. This is a city as well, whose public services have been mercilessly squeezed by the SNP which opposes austerity in opposition but which implements austerity in Government.
And it is an austerity so deep that out there in the real world we have a local Health Board on the brink of bankruptcy and a local council on the brink of serving redundancy notices.
It is a council which is turning to attacks on the terms and conditions of the city’s home carers – where they will be met with resistance. And that resistance will have the full support of this Scottish Labour Party. Because I tell you, that the attacks on these workers – these workers of all workers – the people who care for our elderly and, our vulnerable, in this city is a test not only of their resolve it is a test of our resolve and our values as a society as well. And we cannot let them down.
We have been active outside parliament. But we have been active inside parliament as well.
Since we met last year an inquiry has been launched into the police’s handling of the miners’ strike there has been a partial ban on mesh implants.
The Football Act repealed.
We’ve made the Education Secretary to drop his flawed flagship Education Bill.
And we’ve seen off – for now – attempts by the SNP to cut concessionary travel to our over 60s.
When we met here last year I committed to supporting Mandy McLaren and Gillian Murray’s campaign for an urgent review of mental health services here in Tayside. In parliament I raised the tragic case of Gillian’s uncle David with the First Minister Gillian, Mandy and others from the campaign came to parliament. The government has now established an inquiry. But it should not take people marching on the Scottish Parliament to get justice for their families. On Thursday, I caught up with Gillian and Mandy to hear how things are going. Both spoke of their continuing frustration. They still feel powerless with little hope of change. So I wish to thank you Mandy and Gillian, who join us here today, for your commitment to justice.
We will continue to stand by you.
This is what we have been doing in opposition. Imagine how much more we could do in government.
And let me pay tribute to what we are achieving where Labour is in power at a local level. In North Ayrshire, we have a Labour council that was the first to introduce council tax exemption for care-experienced young people. It is the only council with a dedicated mental health counsellor in every secondary school.
In North Lanarkshire Club 365 provides nutritious food all year round for children who need it most. And so we are working with all of our councillors to hold the SNP to account for their attacks on local government. And we are also working with our MPs to hold the Tories to account.
After 13 years in opposition … remember the very first thing that the Tories did as soon as they were elected: they introduced an anti-trade union act; then they embarked on a programme of austerity which is still hitting people hard; they launched an assault on the most vulnerable in society.
And whilst it is true this so-called Party of tax cutters did reduce the top rate of income tax for the highest earners, and reduced corporation tax year on year for the biggest profiteers. They have put VAT up for the rest of us. And if anyone tries to tell you that the Tories in Scotland are part of the middle ground, remind them of this.
Remind them as well that Ruth Davidson supported Theresa May’s leadership and said that she would do so again.
And remind them of the ad vans sent out by the Home Office under Theresa May’s watch, with the chilling message go home of face arrest.
If this is the middle ground of politics then I am proud to be on the left.
And Ruth Davidson has also supported Theresa May’s approach on Brexit every calamitous step of the way. And what a calamity it has been. We’re just 20 days away from the date we’re supposed to leave the European Union. Three years since the EU referendum. Two years of negotiations. And one false choice: Theresa May’s terrible deal, or no deal at all. Neither of which we will accept. Both would be a disaster for Scotland.
And if we cannot force Theresa May to change course and accept our credible alternative let me be absolutely clear Labour will back a public vote.
Labour has been trying to steer a course through this mess. And break the gridlock caused by the Tories. No one is pretending it has been easy. Brexit has thrown up huge challenges for us as a Party. It has thrown up huge challenges for us as a society. As we approach Brexit, I want to pay a debt of gratitude to all of those who have represented the Scottish Labour Party in the European Parliament over the past 40 years.
Janey Buchan and Ken Collins,Alex Falconer and Hugh McMahon, Bill Miller, Henry McCubbin and Sandy Smith, Catherine Stihler and David Martin all went into the European Parliament to advance the cause of Labour – and together with our socialist comrades across Europe helped secure and defend consumer rights and crucially advanced the rights of workers. And to David and Catherine: this conference thanks you for everything that you have done. You are a credit to our party. Thank you.
But Brexit is not the only challenge we face.
At the start of this year I met with families in debt who are being supported by LIFT – Low Income Families Together – in Muirhouse in Edinburgh, many were caught up in the hands of predatory pay-day lenders. The rotten foundation of this whole model of irresponsible finance is making money out of other people’s misfortune. With the result that it is the very poorest people who are hit the very hardest – and they are hit the hardest, precisely because they are the poorest.
So the next Scottish Labour government will build a more cohesive society by ending austerity.
Scotland is a rich and prosperous nation. But Scotland’s riches and prosperity are held by the few. The time has long passed when we could say we are prepared to tolerate such gross inequality. Not to act is to be complicit.
We need to mount a serious challenge, which is why we have said that we don’t want our schools invested in whilst our libraries close.
Or the NHS to gain at the expense of growing poverty and inequality. We need to tackle both.
Because life expectancy in Scotland is not going up, it is coming down.
Homelessness is not falling it is rising. Shelter has declared that Scotland has a housing emergency.
Meanwhile NHS waiting times are not going down they are going up.
And these outcomes are not accidental they are structural.
The truth is we need the wealthiest to pay their fair share.
Wealth in Scotland has now reached £1 trillion. Wealth is accumulating annually. At the same time as people’s incomes are shrinking. Which is why I am saying that Scotland needs an annual wealth tax.
We know that additional revenue for the Scottish Parliament could be levied on wealth under the current settlement. There is still a landed gentry in Scotland: some of it occupying seats in the Tory Group in the Scottish Parliament. And if there is anything that symbolises inequality in power in economic power in wealth, it is the lack of justice inherent in Scotland’s land ownership patterns. Those land ownership patterns are some of the most unequal anywhere in the world with little over 400 people owning over 50% of Scotland’s rural land. It is a pattern that has hardly changed for centuries concentrating power and wealth in the hands of a privileged few and denying opportunity for the many. Our “Land Justice” reforms will take on the vested interests. Like the Danish billionaire, Anders Povlsen and the Duke of Buccleuch.
As Tom Johnston said, our old nobility is not so noble.
So, we will use the powers our Parliament already has to deliver Land Justice, the cause the SNP has ignored. And we will deliver a radical redistribution of power and wealth. That has always been our goal as a party.
And you know I don’t think that people ever lost faith in Scottish Labour’s values they lost their faith in us. And to win that back we need to listen and we need to hear. We must be united and we must be distinctively Labour. Distinctively Labour in our words but in our deeds as well.
And, yes, that means that we need to win back the trust of Scotland’s Jewish communities, who feel badly let down. It sickens me that there is any antisemitism at all in our Party and in our movement. That is not who we are and it is not what we are about. We are not simply a non-racist party. We are an anti-racist party. Antisemitism does not represent Labour values. There is no place in our Party for prejudice, bigotry, hatred and racism. And that’s why I say to you this afternoon unequivocally we will root it out.
A few weeks ago I went out with two street support workers around the streets of Edinburgh I met people without a home. Some resorting to a temporary bed each night. And some who because of poor mental health simply cannot cope with these night shelters so sleep on the streets. Two of the men who we met spoke of their struggle with anxiety. One talked of needing to sit in a bustling city centre spot, because it helped him feel safe. While the other sat in an abandoned shop doorway well away from the hustle and bustle of Princes Street because he can’t cope with crowds. Conference, it could make you weep.
But it makes me even more determined even more determined than ever, that we need to get back into power to change this. We know homelessness and rough sleeping do not exist simply because of a housing shortage. People become homeless for many reasons.
That is why a Scottish Labour government will not only invest in building houses. We will invest in people And we will move to ban winter evictions once and for all.
A few weeks ago I also met with workers in this city who were employed by McGills. You know McGills had a £40 million order book One of the workers described to me how his children were having to go without this year. His pay had stopped he was owed notice money he was owed holiday money. He told me all the McGills workers told me, they had been let down: badly let down by the company’s bank which foreclosed an overdraft, and badly let down by the Scottish Government which could have stepped in to rescue these jobs, but which instead sat back.
And it’s the same story right across Scotland. Just ask the workers at Healthcare Environmental Services in Shotts who I stood in solidarity with just a week ago.
The Scottish Labour Party that I lead will always stand by workers in struggle.
We are getting back to where we always should have been the party of communities and the party of workers as well. We have a progressive agenda for workers rights we challenge the gig economy which is about profitable companies dumping their costs on workers. Now the SNP tell us we shouldn’t talk about workers’ rights because they are reserved. But these very same practices like the use of umbrella companies are commonplace. Not only in the private sector, but on public contracts funded by the Scottish Government. Which is why it is about time that we had a Scottish Government that was prepared to use its powers, including through public procurement to drive up employment standards.
This week Theresa May promised MPs a vote on any changes to workers’ rights after Brexit. Today I say to you, a Scottish Labour government will protect and strengthen workers’ rights by seeking the devolution of employment rights with a pre- Brexit UK floor. To ensure that workers in Scotland are not involved in a race to the bottom. And we will ensure that all workers – including young workers – are paid the real living wage.
And we need a properly-resourced Scottish Investment Bank worthy of the name we will modernise and expand our manufacturing base so that factories once idle will hum with production again. Because the SNP is defensive and industrially conservative at the very point in our history when we need to be innovative, visionary and bold. We need a plan for the economy which goes beyond the market.
A Scottish Labour government will build a sustainable economy.
So from workplace to workplace, factory to office, street to street we will take our message out.
And I want every part of Scotland to identify local need and a plan for local action backed with national resources to bring about transformative change.
So we need an awakening. We have the vision of how much better our society could be. And I tell you that we cannot rely on an automatic disillusionment with the SNP to do the job for us. There is no iron law. There is no inevitability. But if we work for it we can achieve it because I tell you that we make our own history.
And so it matters whether we use public institutions or private firms to achieve our goals.
We are the Labour Party – so we simply cannot be neutral on the question of ownership. Because it goes to the very heart of what kind of society it is we want to build. We do not back the public ownership of public services for reasons of dry dogma. We do it because we have a purpose in mind.
Take the buses. Across the country, the number of routes has gone down while the cost of fares has gone up. Communities, particularly in rural areas, have been left stranded. The deregulation of bus services has failed us. Fleet sizes are down. Staff numbers are down. Journeys are down. Down by ten per cent in the last five years alone. But today, to those communities that have seen their much-needed routes removed, I say that Scottish Labour has an answer. We believe that clean, affordable and reliable bus services are the mark of a civilised nation. So when the transport bill arrives in Holyrood later this year, we will fight to change the law, to put our bus services back in public hands.
That way we can run them, not for profit, not to line the pockets of shareholders, but to give the public a service that we will all benefit from. It will allow us to standardise fares throughout Scotland and ultimately, my aim, of providing a universal public service. I believe that free bus travel for the over 60s has been one of the finest achievements of the Scottish parliament, a Labour achievement. And it is one that I want to see everyone benefit from.
It has tackled isolation. It has created opportunities. It has given people a better quality of life. And it makes a difference to the economy.
Because every £1 spent on concessionary bus travel generates almost £3 in benefits to those bus users and to the wider economy. Which is why I say today, the Scottish Labour Government that I lead will not only end the failure of deregulation we will deliver the success of free bus travel for all. And to jumpstart our bus services again, I am today calling for an extension of the free bus pass to all under 25s within the lifetime of this parliament.
And if the SNP won’t do it, we will do it on day one of an incoming Scottish Labour government.
But then we will go further.
We will build a proper bus network that connects Scotland’s communities. From that collective strength and that commitment to being a truly public service, we will shift the balance from shareholder profit to public investment. So Labour will build a free bus network to serve the whole of Scotland. And we want to link in with our manufacturing base as well. We want the green buses of the future to be made in Scotland. And we want the maintenance of our railway rolling stock to be made in Scotland too. Which is why we have joined the fight with Unite and the RMT to save the Caledonian railway works in Springburn. Since its privatisation in 1995, the Caley works has been in:
and now German ownership again.
It’s about time it was in public ownership.
So, we are looking at new ways, new methods, but rooted in our old ideals.
The need for change is demonstrated by the very fact of its possibility.
We have not come through the adverse electoral storms of the last decade to simply sit back and give up before nationalism. We stand against it. We stand by our socialist ideals.
We hold our nerve and we keep our faith. We have a vision of the future worth striving for.
People are turning to us again to fight their corner. And under my leadership, fight it we will.
Because we know, that the real division in society will not be healed, basic inequalities will not be tackled, economic and social justice cannot be established, unless we build a society on the principles of democracy. But for the avoidance of doubt, on the principles of socialism as well. We need confidence in ourselves. We are part of a worldwide movement. We are offering people not just policies but a vision of a better future which does not simply appeal to their self interests but the well being of their community as well.
So let’s always be on the front foot. Let’s have idealism. Let’s have conviction and let’s have the courage of our conviction to bring about the real change that the people of Scotland are crying for.