Putting fairness and honesty back into politics

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Conference

I want to start by saying thank you. Thank you to my family. Thank you to everyone in this hall. And to the many people beyond it, who have gone out of their way to support me as we re-build our party.

This is not a job I aspired to - but it is a job I relish. Every bit of it.

And it is wonderful to be in Inverness on such a beautiful weekend defying those who say that the sun will only shine after September 2014.

And I want to thank my deputy Anas and my old friend Margaret Curran for their support too. I have asked them both to go on a charm offensive. Anas can supply the charm and Margaret can play to her strengths too. Margaret and I have been making jokes at each others expense for years... but in all seriousness, Margaret's friendship and support has made a huge difference to me on the last year.

The early days of my attendance at conference were dominated by our anger, revulsion and determination to Margaret Thatcher and the Tories out of office.
Never then did I imagine that one day I would be addressing a Scottish Labour Party conference as leader in the week when she was buried.

Her death has reminded us all of the damage she did to our country, the pain she brought to too many people throughout this land and the legacy of division she has left.

I have been struck by the dignity of the communities, the miners, the shipyard workers, the steelworkers as they recalled the vandalism she wrought.

I also remembered the truth, not just that her era was ushered in by the SNP bringing down a Labour government, but that it was our failures as a party, when we divided against each other that allowed her to prosper.

We will never allow that to happen again.

I am not asking anyone either to forget or forgive what Thatcher did. We never will.

But I also remembered that Nelson Mandela, after 27 years jailed on Robben Island, forgave his jailers before he walked out to freedom.

And it made me think this conference. Let our party, let our movement be shaped by our political heroes not by villains.

Let’s define ourselves by what we are for, not what we are against. Because our vision of how our country could and shall be is so much richer than the narrow, negative views of our opponents.

Last year when we met in Dundee our job was to breathe life into our party. We had been badly beaten. We had to change. And we have changed and will continue to change and the result was that in the local elections, from Aberdeen to Edinburgh, Stirling to Renfrewshire –  and yes of course in Glasgow, the Scottish Labour Party had stunning victories.

Our party is changing. Changing how we do policy, changing how we communicate, changing how we select our candidates.

Our new General Secretary Ian Price will see through that change and I have every confidence that together we will deliver a modern 21st century party that truly represents the people of Scotland. I know we still have a long way to go but I believe we can achieve our goals for Scotland.

We have breathed life into our party when many of our opponents had written us off.

This year I believe our job is to breathe life into Scottish politics.

Currently we are trapped in an argument of narrow nationalism. The SNP have chosen to use their majority, not to reform and improve Scotland, but to put Scotland on pause until the Referendum.

The bedroom tax they don’t see as an opportunity to show how devolution can protect Scots from a Tory government.

Not a chance to help people.

Instead they see it as an opportunity to be aggrieved.

I ask them to abandon that now. I pledge to work with the SNP to protect the poor and vulnerable from the injustice of the bedroom tax.

We can protect them and we must.

Scotland can stand united against the Tory cuts and I call upon the SNP to work with us.

If they truly believe in social justice we can work together.

But sometimes I ask what is their case? Well if you are a tax exile the SNP will tell you they will cut tax in an independent Scotland.

If you are Rupert Murdoch they say come to Scotland because you will pay less.

At the same time as they say Scotland will be a tax haven for the rich, they claim we will have Scandinavian levels of public spending.

Scotland will be a low tax, debt free, high public spending country. Rupert Murdoch and Tommy Sheridan will embrace – and I’ll be a size ten with George Clooney on my arm.

It doesn’t add up.

What the Nationalists are having isn’t a conversation with the people of Scotland, it’s an attempt to chat Scotland up.

And let me tell you conference. Their chat up lines are mince and the people of Scotland are going to give them a helluva a knockback.

Their story doesn’t stack up.

But what is our story?

What is my story?

I grew up in Anderston with my heart in Tiree.

My family were crofters married to the land, my father a merchant seaman wedded to the sea.

I saw in my upbringing the beauty of our land and felt both the warmth of community and the harshness and brutality at times of trying to make a living here.

I had the privilege to grow up in a family of love, but one where my mother always reminded me that what we ate, what we wore, where we lived, was all the product of the sweat of my father’s brow earned at sea.

And I respected that.

I grew up in a world of respect for hard work and where people were valued.

And I saw the unfairness of a world which did not value work back.

A father who retired without a pension.

A father whose employer cared not for him after he left, but who was in his dying days cared for by a National Health Service, the Labour Party’s great creation, an expression of our collective belief that individuals deserve better.

And I grew up in a family that did not feel hard done to, did not blame others or feel entitled, but one that thirsted to improve ourselves and the people who we called neighbour.

As a child of Anderston, a child of Tiree I was never of a generation that could expect a university education yet I got one not because it was a Scottish tradition – but because Labour made that a Scottish tradition if I worked hard enough.

That the likes of me, if we were good enough, could get there.

That is the Labour tradition.

And we could marry that Labour tradition to another

Scottish tradition, and I could sit by my mother in a public library and study for my Highers as she studied for her Highers, studying by her daughter’s side for no other advancement than her own intellectual pride.

And what did I decide to do with that university education?

I decided to use it to throw open the gateway to others that had been a dream for me through education.

I did it in schools where I met children as I had been. Working class, proud, eager, but blighted by the joblessness of Thatcher’s Britain. 

I did it in schools where children didn’t have the privileges I had in Anderston.

The privilege of a mother and a father who got you out of your bed in the morning.

The privilege of parents who knew the value of education.

I did it in schools where it was an achievement for some children, simply to get over the door in the morning.

I did it to look into the eyes of those children who didn’t have the benefit of the working class values instilled in them and search for an ember of hope - something to be breathed upon, to be cherished, to be made aflame and something we could fight together to burn against the dying of that light before they were even fully formed.

That was my call to public service.

I went back to one of my old schools recently. The old building completely rebuilt by a Labour government.

The dilapidated houses I looked out upon from the staff room now re-built thanks to a Labour government.

But the fear of decay returning as the slump continues.

Our national shame, Conference, is that Margaret Thatcher might be long gone, but there are still children in this country whose chances of success are as bad now as those of the children I taught then.

That has to change.

And that is why we exist.

To fight injustice.

As Nelson Mandela said: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

And so, friends, when we go into the next Scottish election we will have plans not just to change education over one term but a vision which will look forward twenty years.

Because if our schools, colleges and universities are to be the best in the world we need that length of vision.

And we will not pay for opportunity for some while denying opportunity for others.

The savaging of the college system to fund universities has been a disgrace. A con for people wherever they are learning - at school, college or university.

I want and, we need....  a Scotland which has all education open for all. I want us to return to a policy of lifelong learning.

That is not just a matter of social justice, it is also an economic imperative in a fast changing world.

Let others talk of an oil boom. Our greatest resource will always be our people and if we are to give people the chance to fulfil their potential it is a second education boom we need in Scotland.

We will make Scotland a fairer more just country.

That is why we seek power.

Conference, this weekend we have published the interim report of our devolution commission.

I believe it is a good piece of work.

It is radical and challenging and I am grateful to everyone who contributed to it whether they represent Scottish Labour in our councils or in Europe, at Holyrood or Westminster, trade unions or party members.

What it is - is the starting point of where we agree how devolution is to be developed.

What it is not is an attempt to appease the SNP.

I am well aware that you don’t appease lions by throwing more Christians at them. And I will not walk an inch down the road to independence.

We will have plenty of time to debate it throughout the party and we will consult with all of Scotland on it.

But let’s do that within this context.

Our debate is not power for power’s sake, it is to ask where best should power lie to make the best of people’s lives.

And there are two principles within it that I am determined to protect.

One is to deliver power to our people not to institutions. The current SNP government is one of the most centralizing since Margaret Thatcher.

This isn’t just a question of devolving power from Westminster to Holyrood but beyond to the people best placed to make the best of people’s lives.

I want to reinvigorate democracy at council level and beyond.

And the second point I make is this. Sovereignty lies with the Scottish people. We choose to be in partnership with our neighbours and that means we should be respectful to our neighbours because this is a partnership.

And so I do not want a settlement that reduces Scotland’s influence in Westminster one iota.

Let us be clear what is on offer here. The SNP want to separate ourselves from the United Kingdom but allow Westminster to retain all power over our currency, our interest rates, what we can spend, what we can borrow without one Scot at Westminster to put Scotland’s case.

I want Scotland to play our full part in our partnership, with full Scottish representation at Westminster.

That is what is in Scotland interests and that is why we are the party of Scotland.

The SNP say we are on a home rule journey. Pity they didn’t join us when we started it.

Labour created the Scottish Parliament because we believe in devolution. And we have continued to lead the debate on devolution. We have begun a dialogue with the people of Scotland about what powers the Scottish Parliament should have.

But conference, can I tell you today what powers I really want?

They are the powers Alex Salmond already has.

The power over Scotland’s education.

The power over Scotland’s health service.

That way we shape the schools that will give every child an opportunity to reach their potential. That way we support the colleges that will give people a chance to learn the skills needed to get a decent job.

That way we will build the universities that will pass on the knowledge to the people who will drive our economy in the future.

That way we will provide the care for the sick and the elderly they need and deserve.

That way we can empower our children to make healthier choices.

We know it is not the union that prevents us from achieving our ambitions for Scotland.

So why do we have to wait until after the referendum to get on with realising them.

The man Alex Salmond put in charge of our schools, Mike Russell, said in a recent speech that he wants to bring about a change in education that will transform schools. But he said that he can only do it after independence.

Well, if he can’t bring about that change now, my message to him is to move over and let someone else who can get on with the job.

Because in the Labour Party we know how to get on with the job.

Labour in government had a childcare strategy within months of coming into office.

We introduced child tax credits to supplement child benefit. We introduced paternity and extended maternity leave.

We lifted hundreds of thousands of children out of poverty.

We don’t need the Council of Economic Advisers to tell us what a difference investing in education and childcare can make.

I know only too well as a teacher and a mother.

A few weeks ago, Alex Salmond stood on his conference platform and promised a childcare revolution.

Yet he made the same promise of 600 hours care for 3 and 4 year olds as he had made in 2007. Six years on and families are still waiting.

Only 1% of two year olds will be guaranteed early learning and care. We are massively behind the rest of the UK never mind other countries in the world.

Families of pre-school children need help and action now.

Families of primary school aged children need help with out-of-school and wrap-around care.

Is Alex Salmond concerned about the families who pay more for childcare than they do a mortgage?

Or was it a cynical attempt to persuade the women who oppose him to change their minds when we want to change women’s lives?

Conference, you can make up your own mind but this time I am going to give him the benefit of the doubt.
If he is serious about supporting the families who are struggling with childcare costs, then let’s make it happen now. 
I challenge Alex Salmond to meet me next week and to bring his budget - And I will work with him to ensure we can deliver the childcare that a modern family needs.

We have worked up proposals. I am sure he has too.

We can agree what our priorities should be and how we are going to deliver it within his budget.
I came into politics to ensure people could achieve their full potential. That is why I joined the Labour Party. Changing people’s lives for the better is what we are in the business of.

We will work with anyone who shares our values and who wants to make a positive difference to people’s lives.

Because what is exciting conference is that we can change lives, and people can change their own when they are empowered to do so.

Last year I saw community ownership first hand when I visited the Galson Estate Trust on the Isle of Lewis. You would be surprised and impressed by what community organisations like Galson are delivering: house building, developing renewables, reversing population decline and reinvigorating their area.
Community ownership of assets is a powerful vehicle to tackle not just social injustice and inequality but it also delivers economic growth. It gives power to the people and allows them to transform their communities.

It was a Labour Executive that brought in the Land Reform Act. It has allowed remarkable progress to be made in the number of communities that now own their land. But despite that Scotland’s land ownership patterns are significantly out of line with what is the norm in most of Europe and much of the world.

Just 16 owners have 10% of Scotland’s land and get tax breaks for doing so.

Land reform has stalled under the SNP.

If we want to have any real hope of changing the current patterns of land ownership in Scotland, then we have to be bold. We have to be radical.

Conference, Scottish Labour will commit to extend rights for community purchase of land and for those rights to be available across Scotland.

If it is in the public interest, communities will have the right to purchase land, even when the land owner is not a willing seller.

Now that is a power worth devolving.

Times may be hard but we can still make change happen.

Last year, I started a debate about what our choices should in a time when money is tight.

People asked why I made that speech in September. I will tell you why. Because we know, what every family in the country knows, that times are hard. That until there is economic recovery there are choices to be made.

We know, what the SNP admit only in private, that the finances are poor and that with an ageing population the demands on those finances will increase. I believe we need to be honest about the challenges we face because only by being honest can we be true to the values we all hold.

I was told at the time by some that I was right but that it was bad politics. Well I think that to wait until the day after the referendum to tell the truth about where we are is rotten politics. I believe the only sort of politics which is good politics is honest politics.

My ambition is to marry the debate we have in the Scottish Parliament, in the TV studios and in the newspapers, with the lived reality of the people we represent.

When I called for an honest debate about spending priorities, many criticised me and misrepresented my motives.

Conference, let me tell you why I said what I said. A few weeks before, I met with a group of care workers who told me about their experiences of the job. Good people who work hard at a difficult job for little reward.

They explained how they were asked to ‘task and go’. That they were instructed not to speak with the people they cared for because they had to be in and out in 15 minutes. 

They told how difficult they found that process because it goes against their instincts to care and help.

I was convinced that the truth about their working lives and the lives of those they cared for was not something that could be finessed or ignored. We could not pretend that this system was working.

It made me realise it was obscene for politicians to celebrate policies which bore no relation to what was happening on the ground.

It is time politicians were honest with the public about hard choices. We can’t afford a cartoon debate when older people are being tucked up in bed by six o’clock because it fits in a carer’s pressured schedule because of pressured budgets.

The SNP claimed I was attacking the principle of universal benefits, which I was not.

What I was asking was the central question for anyone who believes in social justice, how do you deliver social justice in a time of scarcity not a time of plenty.

And their response revealed to me two truths about the SNP.

We start with the needs of the people. We develop policies which we believe will help meet those needs. And then we try to communicate it.

The SNP are the other way round. They start with a slogan.

The slogan is the parent of the policy and people’s needs come last.

That is why in this country Alex Salmond says we have free personal care but in truth we have vulnerable and elderly people getting fifteen minute visits from carers who are instructed not to talk to them because a conversation would take up too much time.

Free personal care says Salmond – but the carers told to say nothing to a pensioner in need.

He has got the slogan but he is not funding the policy and people are suffering.

And let me talk about one of the great achievements of a Labour government – the introduction of concessionary travel.

The bus pass is a great thing. But it doesn’t really work if there isn’t a bus to get on.

That is happening around the country. Services cut.

Just this week, in one part of my own constituency we were told that people will not have a bus in their area after 6 o’clock at night.

That’s why I want a debate about our nation’s priorities.

As Nye Bevan said: “The language of priorities is the religion of socialism.”

And as the late Campbell Christie, a great and principled trade unionist, said: “Contentious issues such as the continuation of universal entitlements must be considered openly and transparently, rather than in the current polarised terms”.

I agree. 

That is why I asked Professor Arthur Midwinter – a leading public finance expert – to conduct an evidence-based review of what as a nation we can afford.

But what happened when I asked for that debate?

I was publicly derided by the SNP. 

And then what did we find out? John Swinney sees there is a crisis in public spending– in private at least.

The Scottish cabinet will talk amongst themselves about the spending crisis we are facing while they deny it in public.

Why John Swinney even questions the affordability of the state pension in a separate Scotland.

Well let me tell him, Labour is keeping the pension he thinks we can’t afford.

And I make this pledge to the people of Scotland. I will be straight with you about what we can and cannot do. We won’t say one thing in private and then tell the public something we know to be untrue.

Because we know the reality of people’s lives and they deserve the truth.

The biggest issue for people right now is the economy.

People are hurting. 

Unemployment is unacceptably high. 

Growth is too slow. 

Many of those lucky enough to stay in a job find themselves forced to accept reduced hours.

Many of those finding a job for the first time are accepting temporary contracts. 

For too many, wages are falling and prices are rising

This is the real world.  It needs to change.

We need an economy that works for the many, not the few.

We need an economy that equips us to compete with the emerging powers of China and India.

We need an economy fit for the twenty-first century.

We won’t be able to do this with a low skill, low wage economy.

Participating in a race to the bottom will mean finishing bottom of the race.

This is not the view of the Conservatives or SNP.  Both are wedded to the failed economic policies of the past.

They both are oblivious to reality.

The Conservatives haven’t changed – they are still committed to rewarding those at the top, while the majority are left to feel the pain. 

This month people earning over a million pounds a year received an average tax cut of £100,000 – a policy for millionaires signed off by a cabinet of millionaires.

These are Ruth Davidson’s priorities: they are not mine.

Alex Salmond favours a low tax and lightly regulated economy.

He spoke of the need for lighter-touch regulation of financial services just before the crash.

He thinks that the way to attract global investors to Scotland is with ultra-low corporation tax. 

This is extreme short-termism: the economy will be weak if it is not built on strong foundations.

When making long-term investment decisions, what firms want is a skilled and educated workforce.

This means skills at all levels – not just graduates.  It means investment in basic and intermediate skills – areas where we compare badly with our major competitors, and is a major reason for Scotland’s low levels of productivity.

This is why the SNP’s cut of 120,000 college places is not only unjust – it undermines our long-term economic potential.

David Cameron and Alex Salmond don’t realise that the era of “trickle-down” economics is at an end.

We need an economy that works for people – not against them. 

We need an economy built from the “middle out” – not from the “top-down”.

The key factor in economic growth is the strength and size of the middle – inequality encumbers growth!

Ken Macintosh and Cathy Jamison are working hard on developing Scottish Labour’s alternative economic strategy. 

This will not just be for one parliamentary term.  They are focussing on how we can build a Scottish economy that meets the long-term challenges. 

They will be examining how we can build an economy from the “middle”, our approach to taxation, how we will meet the productivity challenge, ways to strengthen

Scottish business and exports, and building sustainable financial services.

Labour’s enduring cause is to help and protect the most vulnerable – to make sure that the old, the sick and poor have some serenity and dignity in their lives.

Our mission is to right the social arithmetic: to give a voice to the voiceless, hope to those who feel all hope has gone, and security to those who feel insecurity.

We will never walk past on the other side.

There is no greater cause than child poverty – its existence diminishes us all.

A child is not to blame for the circumstances into which they are born: as a society we have a moral obligation to ensure that every child can fulfil their potential.

Progress in reducing child poverty in Scotland has stalled under the SNP.  Today, as I speak, 27 out of 32 local authorities have council wards where over 20 per cent of children live in poverty.

The spectre of rising child poverty looms for the first time since the early 1990s.  This should be treated as a national emergency, but it is not! 

The SNP, instead, choose to ignore reality.

Three weeks ago, in this very hall, Alex Salmond delivered a speech in which he referred to Iraq ten times,  independence twenty-five times but the word poverty was never spoken.

The difference between him and me is very simple.  He entered politics to erect borders, while I came into politics to tear down barriers.

Alex Salmond is no friend of the poor.

Under Labour, substantial progress was made in reducing child poverty: we are rightly proud of this, but we must now meet the challenge of today.

That’s why I charged Jackie Baillie and Drew Smith with ensuring social justice is woven into the fabric of everything we do.   

Their Challenge Paper, published today sets out our policy priorities, offers many of the answers that the SNP choose to ignore.

Conference I didn’t come into politics to debate the constitution. I came into politics to end poverty.

Today though, we find a Scotland suffering from the Tories failed economic plan, and an SNP administration who couldn’t care less about protecting Scotland from it.

An SNP administration happy to spend thousands of pounds commemorating historic battles and cutting college places.

And in that you can see why they don’t get what is great about Scottish history.

Our greatest moments weren’t when we out fought our neighbours – it was when we out-thought the world.

Our enemy is poverty with all the evils that brings.

Alex Salmond would have you believe that the enemy is our neighbours.

He wants to have a debate with David Cameron, but he won’t debate me.

That’s because he wants to deceive people into thinking this is a question of Scotland versus England. It isn’t.

This fight is Scotland versus Salmond and it is one Scotland is going to win.

I make this solemn promise to you: I will do everything in my power to restore honesty to politics.

We in this party, this movement, will fight for this country we love.

Let me tell you what my job is about. It is about making sure this party responds to the needs of Scotland.

It is about fighting privilege and inequality wherever we find it.

It is about fighting poverty and opening up opportunity for all.

It is about creating a fairer, better, more prosperous Scotland.

It is about leading Scotland.

And that, conference, is a job I am minded to do.

20 April 2013