On Saturday, 14th March, I spoke in front of Liberal Democrat conference summarising the debate on a policy motion entitled 'A better deal for Britain's workforce'. I outlined: the need for greater interaction between Liberal Democrats - as a party - and trade unions, acknowledging their vital role in supporting Britain's workers; our party's record in government blocking the Tory's attempts to undermine workers' rights; and why Labour are no longer the natural party for working people.
Conference, this has been a really important debate. Not just because the issues we have been debating affect every single person who makes up Britain’s workforce, but because of the message we are sending to the millions of people who choose to be members of trade unions in our country.
I believe, and have always believed, that Britain’s trade unions play a vital role in our country. As the motion rightly says, we do welcome “the contribution made by union representatives in workplaces across the UK in representing their members collectively and individually, in working to deliver greater equality and improved training, and negotiating fairer outcomes in pay, conditions of service, redundancy and many other matters.”
And it’s right that we recognise that as a party. It’s why I have long supported greater dialogue between Liberal Democrats and trade unions, and have actively worked towards that during this parliament.
The meetings that I and colleagues, including Danny Alexander, have held with friends in the Trade Union movement have been hugely valuable - and it’s important that they continue and that relationship continues to be strengthened.
Conference, we can be proud of our record in government.
We have stood up for the right to fair representation in the workplace.
We blocked Conservative proposals to undermine employment rights, not least their disgraceful plan to allow employers to fire at will.
We have opposed Conservative attempts to undermine the role of trade unions. Not least their cynical attempt to misrepresent the role of facility time in the workplace which supports effective representation. Or their cynical efforts to abolish ‘check off’.
But, most of all: we can be proud of our record in cleaning up Labour’s mess and fixing the broken economy that we inherited.
We now have the fastest-growing economy in the developed world. The deficit has been halved. There are more than 1.8 million people back in work – that’s 1,000 new jobs created every day since the last election.
The minimum wage has been increased – and on the rate of growth we have seen in this parliament it won’t just reach the £8 an hour which Labour have promised by 2020, we will exceed £8 an hour. And we have strengthened employment rights, with tougher powers for shareholders over executive pay.
And we have delivered the biggest tax cut for a generation. What a contrast to Labour’s decision to axe the 10p starting rate of tax. When they axed the 10p rate, they hiked it to 20p - hitting low-income families. Liberal Democrats have set it, not at 20p, not at 10p, but at zero for those in work – those who Labour betrayed.
It’s just one reason why Britain’s workforce should never assume that they can trust Labour. Never trust them not to wreck the economy again. Never trust them not to oversee a huge rise in youth unemployment, as we saw before they left office. And never trust them to lift the burden of tax on families, as we have done.
Labour’s mishandling of the economy. Their failure on jobs and apprenticeships. Their betrayal on tax. That’s why – for communities like those I represent in Bermondsey, Rotherhithe, the Borough, the Elephant and Castle and in Walworth – Labour has forfeited the right to pose as the natural party for working people.
So, Conference, I urge you to support this motion.
We believe that trade unions can - and do - play a vital role in the creation of a fairer, stronger economy by defending the rights of ordinary working people, making their voice heard, and striving for better pay, working conditions and equality.
And it is so important that we say that, as a party, loud and clear – and we do so here today in Liverpool – one of the great maritime cities of Britain which, just like my constituency on the Thames, has contributed so much to generating jobs and growth by its labour and trade over so many years.
And I encourage all party members to support increased engagement with trade unions at local, regional and national level by our party - just as I and colleagues will do nationally, in parliament and in government.
We must be the party of business, not least the party for small-businesses and the self-employed.
But we must also be the party for trade unionists too.
We must make sure every trade union, and every trade unionist now hears our message.
Conference, support this motion. And let’s, as Liberal Democrats, support – always – securing a better deal for Britain’s workforce.