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Our big challenge - Solidarity in the face of insecurity

The text below is the opening keynote speech given by Lisa Nandy MP, at Class's first national conference on 2 November, 2013 at Congress House. Please check against delivery - video to follow shortly.

I want to thank Class for bringing us together today. Because in just three years since the Coalition came to power, we’ve seen the biggest fall in living standards since Victorian times. Labour’s legacy of lifting a million children out of poverty will be wiped out in just five years. The British Red Cross, used to working amidst war and famine, launching its first emergency food appeal to feed families in Britain - the spectacle of families, standing in food queues, trying to stave off the humiliation of miserable grinding poverty, in one of the richest countries in the world.

And like Billy said, they’re picking on the people too ill, too powerless to fight back. Disabled people, evicted because of the bedroom tax. Children turning up at school too hungry to learn. Home care workers forced onto zero hours contracts and told they’ll be sacked if they complain. People rendered utterly powerless to fight back.

Because when they try to speak out they’re silenced. Sweeping cuts to legal aid have rendered the housing and employment rights, hard won over a century of struggle, virtually unenforceable in one stroke. Employment tribunal fees hiked up beyond a level most people can dream of. And the charities who give them a voice, gagged by the Lobbying Bill, being rushed through Parliament in time for the run up to the election.

It’s enough to make you despair. But we don’t have the luxury of despair. In twenty months time we face the most important election for a generation. The Labour Party, offering to stand up to big energy companies, boost credit unions, crack down on the legal loan sharks causing such misery to families, and extend the living wage. We can choose that – or we can choose more of this.

But my friends, neighbours, constituents in Wigan - they can’t afford more of this. And neither can any of us. Because they are ripping apart the institutions that hold society together. Fragmenting and fracturing schools, pitting them against one another, creating winners and losers among children. Selling off the NHS, the Royal Mail, the East Coast Mainline. Not a day goes by without an attack on a trade union or a charity that speaks out.

And they are pitting us against one another. Young against old. Citizens against immigrants. North against South. Don’t let them get away with it. These are political choices. Don’t believe them when they say we can’t afford to give our pensioners a dignified retirement and feed our kids, when they say we can’t afford to protect the environment and heat our homes. We can. We can do so much better than this if we make the right choices – and that means putting people before profits, it means no more tax cuts for millionaires, no more wasting billions on housing benefit that goes to wealthy landlords instead of building a million new homes.

Solidarity in the face of insecurity. This is our big challenge.

It can be done- our history is littered with examples. It was solidarity that created the trade union movement, that won the battle for the NHS, for the minimum wage. Look at the struggle fought by families whose loved ones died at Hillsborough – quiet, determined dignity over decades to right an historic wrong.

And just weeks ago I was proud to stand with Hovis workers in Wigan when they stood up to agency labour, zero hours contracts and a two tier workforce. Their union, the Bakers’ union, backed them. But so too did ordinary members of Unite, UCU, the NUT, the CWU – ordinary working people came and stood on the picket line with us. That’s how we won. Solidarity is back, it feels good and it works.

That’s our challenge in the next 20 months. Despite everything they’re doing to our communities - to stick together, stand together and fight together. Unity, solidarity and strength. It’s a fight we can win, and a fight we have to win.

Thank you.