Richard Howitt speech

Richard Howitt MEP speech to Burston School Strike Rally

01 September 2013

Richard Howitt, East of England Labour MEP speech to the Burston School Strike Rally, 1 September 2013

I've been here every year for 15 years, bar the year my little boy was born. And I'm very honoured to be asked to speak again to you.

For those who are perhaps coming for the first time or who have travelled a long way to get here, you have heard of the Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival, of the Durham Miners Gala, of the International Workers Day events that are officially observed in Europe and across across many countries in the world, Burston stands alongside them as one of the greatest events celebrating the great history and the continuing relevance of the trade union movement. And we thank you very much for joining us here.

It is also right to start by saying a word about the events of this week.

No-one says that there is an easy solution to the heart-breaking tragedy that has unfolded in Syria.

But this week the Labour Party has taken an honourable position and Ed Miliband has shown real leadership for the party and for the country.

Cameron has not just lost political authority by being the first Prime Minister in over 150 years to lose control of his own foreign policy. When his spokesman used expletives about Labour's position and tried to say we were giving succour to Assad, Cameron diminished the role of Prime Minister itself.

He says: "I get it." I say: "He got it."

But there is task for Labour following the vote, recognising Labour MPs voted to have more international engagement, yet Tory MPs came in to the very same division lobby in reality because they wanted less.

If the Tories really wanted to engage in the world to stop conflict, why don't we hear them say that about the Palestinian people?

Or about the trade unionists killed in the world's longest running civil war in Colombia, which I've seen personally as the vice-president of Justice for Colombia?

Or about the seven times the number killed in Syria in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which many people call a genocide?

Instead all I hear from the Conservative Party is the argument to inflict the cuts on development aid the way they're doing it on everything else.

But based on the fundamental principles of the trade union and labour movement - of unity and of solidarity - Labour has to build on its support for the UN and international institutions this week, by steadfastly putting the case for peace and development in the Middle East and across the world.

And that, my friends, doesn't exclude Europe itself.

I bring to this rally the greetings of not just the Labour Party but of the Socialist Group in the European Parliament too.

Where our sister parties join us and we join with them in the very same campaigns: against cuts and austerity, for jobs and services.

Against beggar-my-neighbour policies, because in Europe's single market we understand that we cannot be prosperous unless our neighbours are prosperous too.

And in the European Parliament, Labour and Socialist MEPs haven't just been campaigning, we've been doing.

- We've won a continent-wide agreement to introduce a youth jobs guarantee, which our Government hasn't said whether or not it will implement.

- We didn't just talk about but we got agreement to put a cap on bankers’ bonuses - George Osborn didn't like that one.

- Where I'm personally piloting through a new law to make multinationals accountable for their record overseas, including on health and safety, to stop tragedies like the terrible Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh.

- And the campaign that started from trade unions, European Socialists are not just championing but we are implementing proposals for the Robin Hood Tax.

By the way, according to a poem written in 1377, the legend of Robin Hood is based on the real-life Earl of Huntingdon. So whatactually started here in East Anglia, took a detour up to Nottingham, is today being spread across Europe and the world.

And I have to confess I'm not in favour of robbing the rich to pay the poor....but I am in favour of them paying their fair share!

And when I look at the millionaires’ tax give-away and look too at the bedroom tax, at the disability so-called assessments, the cuts to legal aid and to workplace inspectors,  I do see a Government which is quite happy to rob the poor to pay the rich.

Poverty implies some money. But this summer we've succeeded in getting the scandal of no money, of zero hours contracts, brought to the fore. And rightly so.

In July, I invited a committee of MEPs to come to Norfolk and we heard how to working in the fields, today you can be on a zero-hours contract, waiting for a call to your mobile telephone at 5am each morning. If it comes, you are told to go straight to a petrol station where you're picked up by an unmarked van, driven for two hours, then required to work for up to eighteen hours non-stop. But if the telephone call doesn't come, you don't work, you have no money to pay your rent, and you face being homeless. And if you complain, you'll never work again.

And I pay tribute to Unite which is campaigning to end these abuses.

And it is why I say we must not dodge the issue of working time. That a compromise must be found on the European rules.

For those today still working grossly excessive hours, dangerous to themselves and to others.

For more than 300,000 people in the East of England alone who have been forced involuntarily in to part-time employment.

And, yes, to crack-down on zero hours contracts not just in Britain but in European law for the whole of Europe.

Yet this is the opposite of what our current Government would do.

Everyone here knows that when Cameron says he wants to 'repatriate' European powers, what he means most if all is to leave the social chapter again, and strip away your rights at work.

And let me finish by warning you that the European Elections next year will represent the most major attack from the Right, whether it's the Tory Eurosceptics or the increasingly extreme populism of UKIP, and who are now hardly indistinguishable from eachother.

And I ask you in these elections to stand against that attack, as you do every day in your workplaces.

Against the threat to strip away employment rights.

Against their deliberate lies about immigration to engage in the age-old practice of scape-goating of foreigners.

Against the way they seek to inflame community relations.

And against the denigration of human rights, which defines them as inhuman.

In these European Elections.
We will not let them define who we are.

We will speak out for decent, common values.

For the values which, together bring us to Burston today.

In this 50th anniversary week of his most famous speech, Martin Luther King said another thing, less often quoted:

"The time is always right to do what is right.'

And I say to you: "Now is that time."

Thank you.