Frances O’Grady

Frances O’Grady, Secretary General of the TUC

Bevan lecture – 27th November 2013

Thanks Jeremy/ Bevan Society.

Nye was, and remains to this day, a towering figure within our movement.

A trade unionist, a socialist, a true visionary.

Nye gave us ambition and confidence in our own ability as working people to change the course of history.

His headline achievements are well known.

Advances in the rights of working people.

The launch of a National Health Service, based on need not ability to pay.

And, perhaps less famously – but in today’s Britain more relevant than ever – high-quality council homes.

I want to focus on that issue of housing and how the Left can build on Nye’s legacy for the future.

But before I begin, I want to say a few words about someone who knew Nye better than most.

The former chair of the Bevan Society, Geoffrey Goodman.

Not just a grandee of industrial correspondents; but a genuine journalistic great.

Like Nye, his worldview was shaped by war and its aftermath.

Like Nye, he was driven by his belief in the good society.

And like Nye, he understood the realities facing working-class people.

Whether it was serving with the RAF during the fight against fascism – when he counted every day as a blessing – or giving working people a voice through his brilliant writing, Geoffrey was a man of great principle.

He was deeply committed to social justice.

He understood trades unionism instinctively.

And he reported the industrial upheavals of post-war Britain with accuracy and fairness.

Back at the 2008 TUC Congress, I remember Geoffrey giving the last-ever vote of thanks from the media.

It was the day after the Chancellor Alistair Darling had given the big keynote speech.

To be frank, it wasn’t one of Alistair’s most inspiring efforts.

One newspaper reported that it was “indescribably dull”.

But Geoffrey set the record straight.

He said: “That was rubbish. It was in fact describably dull”.

Geoffrey’s wit, wisdom and warmth will never be forgotten.

And the best way we can honour his memory is by winning the intellectual battle for Britain’s future.

With just over 500 days left before arguably the most important general election in living memory, I want to explore how we can change the terms of the political debate.

Ed Miliband certainly produced a game-changer in his conference speech with his promise to freeze energy bills.

And I’m proud that through our campaign called Britain needs a pay rise, the TUC has helped make the cost of living crisis core territory for the election in May 2015.

It’s perhaps a measure of just how remote the Government, private monopoly elites and parts of the media have become that the very suggestion that the state has a responsibility to protect citizens against unfair wages, price hikes and profiteering should provoke such a hysterical response.

But there is a popular appetite for new and practical ways to improve people’s standard of living. And tonight I want to argue for a key one: housing.

In my first speech to TUC Congress, I called for a commitment to build one million affordable and council new homes.

At Labour Party conference Ed Miliband pledged 200,000 new homes a year by 2015.

He went further. He talked about tough action against land speculators. And about the vision of new towns and garden cities. A statement of real ambition.

But Labour will also need to address how these homes will get built and to whose benefit.

Will we take our chances with a market that has systematically failed to meet the housing needs of those on an average income?

Or will we be bold enough to liberate local government and harness popular planning so we build homes that people want, as well as need.

If we get this right we won’t only realise the dream of affordable housing; we can also generate hundreds of thousands of good jobs.

And, more than this, we can give life to our values of equality, democracy and stronger communities.

And there is much we can learn, of course, from Nye Bevan.

After the war, he led the generation that transformed state built housing from provision for the poor, to the aspiration of decent homes for all.

Despite a dire shortage of skills and building materials, Labour oversaw the construction of 55,000 new homes in 1946, rising to 140,000 in 1947 and 228,000 in 1948.

And the programme Nye started was so successful that a Conservative government, led by Harold MacMillan, continued with it – albeit with an eye on cutting costs and a return to the narrower goal of slum clearance.

In fact, the council house I was born in was built in the ’50s.

It was a life changer for my family who previously lived in private rented accommodation. This was at a time when the options for black, Irish or dog-owning tenants’ were somewhat limited.

The prospect of a council home with hot running water, a back garden and an inside toilet represented a revolution in ordinary life.

Although it was only when I saw Ken Loach’s film, Spirit of 45, that I realised that Nye’s original intention was not only that all council homes should have an upstairs bathroom, they should have a downstairs toilet too.

Of course, in the short term that would cost a little more per unit. But Nye’s reasoning was that it would mean children could go in and out to play without dragging the mud on their shoes through the house, and so save their mothers from having to clean up after them.

A small detail perhaps but one that gives an insight into the humanity of the man – and, in my book, is an example of the difference between a technocratic fix and a socialist solution to housing need.

I want to set out why, and how, Labour can rediscover that sense of humane mission that can transform the lives and politics of a generation.

Wrong-footing a Tory Party still addicted to the drug of property speculation, whose policies – from the bedroom tax to the benefits cap – are causing immense hardship to ordinary families.

The big political and economic challenges facing us are clear.

Instead of allowing a wealthy elite to become yet richer, we need to get living standards rising for ordinary working people.

Instead of accepting the Tory dogma that seeks to permanently shrink the state, we need a state that is capable of shaping the market for the common good.

And instead of sleepwalking back to the financial and property speculation that got us into this mess, we need to build a genuinely productive economy.

One that provides the goods and services Britain actually needs; that helps us respond to the profound threat of climate change; that has decent jobs, wages and homes at its heart.

As Nye Bevan understood better than anyone, decent homes are important not just to our economic prospects but to people’s quality of life:

Our children’s educational attainment, our health and wellbeing, and our chances of finding a decent job.

But as Labour politicians now admit, housing was something of a blind spot for the party during the Blair and Brown governments. The damage done in the 1980s wasn’t repaired.

Like the Tell Sid fire-sale of public utilities, Margaret Thatcher’s right to buy scheme may have benefited some working people but only at a massive cost to subsequent generations.

And Thatcher’s assault on the powers and resources of local government powers and resources left a big black hole in Britain’s housing stock that in 1997 Labour failed to fill.

All serving to alienate working class voters whose wages were already stagnating and who saw house prices rocketing – if not out of their own reach, then certainly beyond the reach of their adult children.

And fuelling resentments, first against yuppies and then against migrants, immigrants and refugees, who are now wrongly blamed for a massive housing shortage; when, in truth, the fault lay in successive governments’ failure to build.

Despite well meaning initiatives such as the Decent Homes programme, just 13 per cent of the 2.5 million new houses built during Labour’s office were built by social landlords meaning less well-off families missed out.

The free market failed too many people in too many parts of the country, with developers’ investment flowing to where the returns, rather than need, were greatest.

It’s an approach that has given us the most expensive housing in western Europe; an approach that has failed Britain.

The result is clear: Hundreds of thousands of homeless and hidden homeless, and many more living in overcrowded, unhealthy and unsuitable housing.

A chronic shortage of affordable social housing.

An over-supply of expensive and often substandard private rented accommodation, with taxpayers’ money filling landlords’ pockets to the tune of billions.

And growing numbers of grown adults still living with their own parents, long past their expected fly the nest date. (Sometimes well into their late 20’s and early 30s but, apparently, still incapable of remembering to keep the noise down or switch the lights off.)

In London, the average price of a house is nudging half a million pounds, symptomatic of a completely dysfunctional housing market in Europe’s most lopsided economy.

At the same time, in the capital’s more fashionable postcodes, homes are increasingly used not as somewhere for locals to live, but as a reserve currency for the global super rich.

Now as we all know, Nye Bevan started his working life as a miner in the coal fields of South Wales.

But most of the subterranean activity that goes on in the UK these days seems to be beneath the streets of Kensington and Chelsea, as the financiers and oligarchs build themselves huge underground swimming pools, cinemas and car parks.

What kind of society have we become when the rich spend tens of millions on home improvements, while the poor face eviction because they can’t afford the £14 a week bedroom tax?

The Government’s response is to boost demand rather than supply. Less Help to Buy, more Help to Sell.

By driving up prices, it’s already working against the goal of boosting access to housing.

As recent research by the Resolution Foundation shows, low and middle income families are unable to use the scheme across two-thirds of Britain.

Even with rock bottom interest rates, for average workers hit by a real wage cut of £30 a week, mortgage repayments are unaffordable.

And what about social housing?

In his March Budget, the Chancellor announced plans to build 15,000 new affordable homes.

With 360,000 families on the council housing waiting list in London alone, that’s little more than a drop in the ocean.

And when the government came to power, then housing minister Michael Green – or, as he sometimes calls himself, Grant Shapps – slashed the budget for social housing by a whopping £4 billion.

Right across Britain, the housing crisis and government welfare reforms are combining to turn the lives of millions of low-income households upside down.

Abolishing secure tenancies, cutting housing benefit, creating so-called affordable rents at 80 per cent of the market rate, introducing the benefits cap and implementing the bedroom tax – all are piling the pressure on ordinary families.

When this government was elected Boris Johnson said that the last thing he wanted was for London to become like Paris where the less well off are pushed out to the suburbs. But that is exactly what’s happening in London and many of Britain’s big cities.

This is Tory social policy at its most pernicious: unfair, unjust, unjustifiable.

Labour must give people hope that there is an alternative.

Increasing the supply of homes, helping to stabilise prices, giving children a decent start in life. And the benefits are many:

First, we would boost growth.

According to the National Housing Federation, every affordable home we build boosts the economy by around £108,000.

And research by Oxford Economics has found that for every pound spent on housing – whether public or private money – we generate £1.40 of wider economic benefits.

Even the IMF is now urging the government to invest in bricks and mortar as a means of boosting growth and reducing the cost of living.

Of course there would be a price – around £50 billion.

A big figure, but let’s face it, not far off the cost of HS2. And the long-term benefits could be huge.

According to TUC research, they could be worth up to £400 billion.

Secondly, we would create decent jobs.

With unemployment still high and good apprenticeships for young people in short supply, here’s a great way to get Britain back to work.

Based on figures from the National Housing Federation, the million homes pledge could generate around 1.5 million jobs.

With the leverage to create not just good jobs but good employment standards too.

Using government purchasing power to counter casualisation, stamp out black listing and end the scandal of one in three apprentices being paid less than the paltry legal minimum wage of £2.68 an hour.

And third, in the long run we would save the taxpayer a fortune.

This year, UK taxpayers will spend £23 billion on Housing Benefit, to plug the widening gap between wages and rent.

A huge state subsidy that ultimately ends up in the pockets of landlords.

But this is not just a numbers game; the aim must also be to build great homes and vibrant communities in which people want to live.

Quality matters just as much as quantity.

Nye would have been horrified by the idea that council homes could become new ghettoes for the poor. His vision was that they would be the centre of a new democratic community life.

He explained his vision in these terms: “We should try to introduce in our modern villages and towns what was always the lovely feature of English and Welsh villages, where the doctor, the grocer, the butcher and the farm labourer all lived in the same street. I believe that is essential for the full life of citizens . . . to see the living tapestry of a mixed community”.

Another great Celtic orator, Jimmy Reid, also spoke of the need to address the real needs of working people. In his famous address Glasgow University in 1972 he pointed out that the failed experiment of low quality high rise flats merely reflected our degraded humanity.

He challenged politicians instead to cherish the value of community, community life, a sense of belonging and of identity by empowering people to become involved in shaping their own communities and their own lives.

I want to finish today by saying a word about unions. Nye of course was a talented union organiser and knew what it meant to be victimised because he stood up for union values.

This promises to be one of the dirtiest election campaigns on record and the traditional public school boy pastime of union-bashing as a way to hurt Labour is already well under way.

We’ve already got the government’s Lobbying Bill which is designed to curb union campaigning and open up our individual membership lists to state scrutiny.

And now the government has announced that it will launch an inquiry into union campaigns away from the workplace.

The terms of reference haven’t been published.

But according to Francis Maude it’s an investigation into allegations of union intimidation and bullying following protests against the employer’s threat to close Grangemouth.

Whereas according to Nick Clegg it’s an investigation into unfair labour practices, including black-listing.

Which is interesting as it will be headed up by a QC who has acted for Balfour Beatty.

Balfour Beatty, you’ll recall, is a self confessed subscriber to the Consulting Agency which ran the most infamous black list in the construction industry.

But apparently neither minister was aware that Priti Patel MP, a the staunch supporter of the so-called Trade Union Reform Campaign and who now has a role at number ten, had already written to the chief constables of the Scottish and Hampshire police forces asking if there was grounds for a criminal investigation into trade union protests.

If the police decide there are grounds for investigation, then surely the Government’s review could prejudice the outcome?

If the police say there are no grounds to investigate, then why is taxpayers’ money being wasted on this exercise?

The only conclusion can be that this is a partisan attack designed to deliver more copy for the Daily Mail and the Murdoch Press.

Of course the risk for the Conservative Party is that people will understandably begin to ask hard questions about where their funding comes from and the interests they represent.

And we know the answer: the City, investment banks, hedge funds, private equity and, in the lead up to the last election, another subscriber to the Consulting Agency, construction company Robert MacAlpine.

No wonder, the TUC has little confidence in the integrity and claimed even handedness of this so-called review.

The Conservatives may be shy about admitting who they represent but Labour should be proud of who it speaks for.

Working families struggling to make ends meet, pensioners who have a right to decent care, young people who against the odds are still hopeful for the future.

Nye Bevan wasn’t afraid to say who he went into politics to represent, and neither should Labour.

As he said back in 1944, when speaking against proposals to limit the right to strike: “I do not represent the big bosses at the top. I represent the people at the bottom, the individual men and women.

This regulation is about the enfranchisement of the corporate society and the disenfranchisement of the individual”.

All the polls show that the great majority of people believe that unions still have an essential role to play and I believe that the appetite for change will grow.

People think the gap between rich and poor is too wide and want tax justice.

They want key industries such as our railways and our Royal Mail to be in public ownership.

And they oppose privatisation of our public services, not least the NHS.

This is all natural Labour territory.

From commitments to end zero hours contracts and ban the bedroom tax, to an industry living wage and a mass programme of house building, Labour is making headway.

Had Nye been alive today – had he witnessed the conditions facing millions of working people – I’ve no doubt that’s exactly what Nye Bevan would have done.

For him, the bigger the task, the greater the imperative to act.

Today, just over half a century on from his death, Nye’s unique legacy remains as vivid as ever.

The context may be different, but the 2015 election is shaping up to be as important as that back in 1945.

The choices facing Britain will be essentially the same: growing inequality or shared prosperity, division or unity, fear or hope.

Labour won in 1945 because it had confidence in its values, because it spoke for working people, because it inspired them that there could be a better way and delivered real and practical change.

In the end what do most of us want? A decent job that pays enough money to look after our families; enough time to spend with the people we love, a good community and a decent home to live in.

I want to leave the last words to Nye: He said: “We have been the dreamers, we have been the sufferers; now we are the builders.”

Thank you