Amicus Northern Region Political meeting held in Murton

Saturday 8th May 2004

I bring greetings from the Parliamentary Amicus group and the Northern Group of Labour MPs.

The new union is now the largest Trade Union group in Parliament. Over 120 MPs and 25 Labour peers represent a diverse membership in the political sphere. The group meets with senior union officers every month to discuss matters of policy and industrial interest.

These have included lobbying for work for companies our members are employed in, influencing legislation, meeting with government ministers.

Representations have ranged from those on behalf of Defence industry workers to the employment rights of the clergy. Such is the diversity of our new union.

The Northern Group of Labour MPs meets every two weeks while Parliament is sitting. We have discussed issues from Regional government, through Education, Transport and the regional economy. We have had meetings with the regional TUC, One North East, the regional government YES campaign, the Secretary of State for Education, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Minister for Transport and the Regional Director of the Labour Party.

My own period as Chair of the group ended last November and the current chair is Ashok Kumar - another Amicus member.

Some weeks ago, Ashok and I, along with other trade unionists I can see here today, joined the March for Jobs from Newcastle's Quayside to Grey's Monument.

Like so many other Marches that I've taken part in over the years, it was horrendous weather and by and large, the public were largely indifferent to us, going about their daily business as usual.

But what made this March worrying was not the subject of the demonstration - it is important that we keep up the campaign on behalf of manufacturing, particularly for a union like ours - but the tone of some of the speeches.

I heard trade unionists being advised not to vote Labour, that the Labour Government hadn't delivered, that it wasn't worth supporting. And yes, I heard murmurs of agreement in the crowd too.

Harold Wilson said, a week is a long time in politics. But I thought, at that demonstration, what short memories we have.

Has everyone really forgotten what life for the working man and woman was like under the Tories? With rocketing inflation? Double figure interest rates? When there was no such thing as Tax Credit to supplement the wages of the lowest earners? Before the huge increases in Child Benefit under Labour? Before there was such a thing as Pension Credit, guaranteeing pensioners a minimum income of £105 per week? Before the National Minimum Wage?

Now, only a fool would pretend that everything is wonderful. We only have to look around us to know that so much remains to be done before everyone is fairly sharing in the nation's prosperity. Fulfilling their true potential, with equal access to good well paid jobs, education, health care, housing and a decent standard of living. But only an enemy of Labour would argue that no progress has been made.

The world is changing. Nothing new in that you might say. True. I joined the AEU in 1962. Then I found myself a member of the AEF - then the AEEU - and now AMICUS. And I don't suppose its going to stop there.

Change affects us all. Some of it we can influence some of it is less easy to influence. Many of the new jobs that have regrettably replaced much of our manufacturing are almost peripatetic.

Two years ago Lloyds TSB set up a new call centre in my constituency employing 1000 people, to a great fanfare and a promise by the company Chairman that these would be 'long term sustainable jobs'.

Now we find that the whole call centre is to be relocated to India. Why, because labour is cheaper and - because they can!

This is the nature of modern technology and the 21st century.

Globalisation, the internet, international travel, have shrunk our world and present new challenges to unions and governments alike.

The expansion of the EU to 25 countries last weekend is part of the attempts by governments to meet the new challenges we are faced with.

And the decision of the PM to reverse his previous stance on a referendum on the new EU treaty is a sensible recognition of political reality.

Unions too must work internationally to protect workers from the negative affects of change and take advantage of the positive.

But technology alone will not answer all problems. Only three days ago, I met with union representatives from the Federation Brewery. One of the most technologically advanced breweries anywhere.

Who would have thought, when it was first founded a hundred years ago in Newcastle and then moved to its prestigious new site in Gateshead in the mid '70s, that its technological advances would prove to be built on shifting sands?

And, where the majority of clubs in the region bought their beer from the Brewery - that things would change to such an extent that now only 30 clubs buy exclusively from Fed, and S&N sell more Newcastle Brown in Washington DC than in Washington Tyne and Wear?

The resulting take-over of FED by S&N may mean the continuation of big brewing on Tyneside but the loss of 110 jobs is a bitter pill to swallow -

as is the demise of the last big co-operative brewery - the North East's own, original clubs' brewery.

And if someone can tell me how the Government, any government, could easily reverse these events, then I'll be glad to hear it.

Its become fashionable, the trendy thing to do, to sneer at our Government.

Well, I've never been one to follow meekly behind everyone else. We have an instinctively Tory press in this country -

I was amazed to hear that the Express had now decided to support the Tories? You could have fooled me that they were supporting Labour in the first place.

But, we can expect attacks from right wing Tory newspapers. And attacks too I suppose, from the BBC, still smarting after the Hutton affair.

But attacks from people opposed to social equality and justice is one thing - frankly, I'm pig sick of public attacks from our own side and smart advice from former ministers that is leapt on to show division.

We may differ in our views from time to time - it was ever thus. And the war in Iraq is a particular example of how our Party can become split over important issues.

Only history will determine if the right thing was done or not. In the mean time we have to get on the side of the ordinary people of Iraq; in their struggle to build a fairer freer society than they've ever had the privilege of living in before.

And we have to be on the side of our armed forces as they put their lives on the line to try to win that objective for the Iraqi people.

Recent reports of wrongdoing by American personnel and allegations about British troops too - whether true or not - are extremely damaging to the process; and extremely dangerous, as they are used by terrorists to recruit even more suicide bombers and stir up the hatred which is their one true religion.

I joined a party all those years ago that had equality and fairness at its heart.

And, while the Labour Government has made great strides in creating a more fair, more just society, and in lifting people out of poverty, the work is by no means done.

"Much done - much more to do" was a slogan at the last election.

But just a week or so ago, some Sunday newspapers were publishing 'the Rich List'. Harmless nonsense, you might say? Idle interest in the lives of Posh and Becks? Not at all.

What those figures showed was that, swimming hard against the forces of inequality, the Government had managed to stop the gap between rich and poor getting any wider than it was when we won in 1997. But what they also showed was that the top 1% very rich are still vanishing out of our sight into some gold plated place of their own, with big gates to keep the undesirables out.

To say there is much more to do is an understatement of some magnitude.

The top 1% earns just under 9% of the nations income while the bottom 10% earns just 3%.

But what we surely do know is that there will be no such progress at all under the Tories or the patronising Liberal Democrats.

Desperate to regain lost ground the Tories have united behind a new leader. The Quiet Man made an even quieter exit and in came Michael Howard - all mouth and no credibility - with more form than the Inland Revenue.

Promising more of the same from a Tory Government - lower taxes at the expense of poorer services and isolation in Europe at a time when our need to have real influence has never been greater.

And the Liberal Democrats under their leader 'comical Charlie' - as soon as this pub closes the revolution starts - peddling the same old line they sent out to their local government candidates some time ago, and I quote -

" ...if it's a Labour council you can secure votes from those who normally vote Tory by being... anti-Labour, and similarly in a Tory area being anti-Tory - be wicked, act shamelessly, stir endlessly". End quote.

And these are the people who try to claim the high moral ground.

We are facing even more challenging times, industrially and politically, but the only government that will even begin to rise to the challenges is a Labour government.

As we enter a period of campaigning for local and European elections the challenges come from our traditional enemies of course, - but increasingly from ultra-right nationalist parties like the National Front and the BNP as they capitalise on the fears of people about immigration and the international movements of peoples torn by conflict and persecution.

So we will fight - as we must - on our record since 1997.

vThe first government ever to bring real devolution of power to our country

vthe first government ever to end the archaic system of Hereditary rights of representation in Parliament

vthe first government to give working people a statutory right to trade union representation

vthe improvements in our Health Service, schools, statutory minimum incomes, reductions in crime, reductions in unemployment, new deals for the young-the unemployed-working mothers, more doctors, more nurses, more teachers.

vThe first government ever to set a goal of full-employment and to make real progress towards it.

There are more people in employment today than ever in our country's history, and unemployment has plummeted under Labour to such an extent that there are now concerns about shortages of labour in some areas and a desperate need for training and re-skilling - and even imported workers.

Ironically this means less staff are needed in government departments dealing with unemployment and a consequential reorganisation there.

vNew initiatives to tackle poverty and disease in Africa and the third world

vContinuing efforts to influence peace in the middle east

vAnd, under Gordon Brown, a stable economy on which to build the prosperity of our nation, improve our public services and enable Britain to play a leading role on the world stage.

I tell you colleagues, for all the moans and groans and personality politics, we have much to be proud of and much to shout from the roof-tops about.

This week we saw the sickening site of the Tories 'celebrating' the 25th anniversary of Margaret Thatcher's arrival in Downing Street.

It coincides ironically enough with the 10th anniversary of the death of John Smith.

But it is timely in that we should remember that the reason Thatcher won was because of divisions in the Labour movement - an obstinate government and short-sighted unions - that is a lesson we should never forget.

We are entering a period of important elections. There will be Local elections and the European election on 10th June.

The three Northern regions will hold referenda in the Autumn on Regional Government - another promise fulfilled by Labour.

The outcome of these polls will be crucial for Labours fortunes at the next general election - possibly only a year from now.

So let's get our eye on the ball.

Now is the time to put our differences aside and unite to face the common enemy.

Now is the time to take stock of our achievements and broadcast them to the nation.

Now is the time to remember all those who need a Labour government - the ordinary decent people of this country.

And, as the election period begins we must unite behind that old saying whose time has come yet again -

Now is the time for all good men (and women) to come to the aid of the Party.

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