The future of the left since 1884

Yvette Cooper MP on a Fabian way forward

Labour MP Yvette Cooper addressed the FEPS-Fabian Summer Conference 2019.



Thank you Andy, for the invitation to speak and to Ivana for the introduction

And to all those who have decided on the sunniest day of the year the best place to be is in a conference.

We have a history of this.

For the Fabians, summer means socialism.

In the 1920s, 30s, 40s, the Fabian Society was running summer schools.

Andy, just a thought. They didn’t do Tottenham Court Road. They did the Lake District. And rural Devonshire.

There are great pictures of earnest young men and women giving lectures standing on farm carts in the middle of a field – on one side a rather puzzled elderly man in a tweed jacket and bow tie, on the other, carrying a rake, a completely baffled local farmer.

The Fabians are touring the country still. The Commission on Workers and Technology I chair – run by the Fabians & Community union – has been taking evidence on the impact of technology and automation from the worker point of view and I want to thank Liv Bailey for the brilliant work the team is doing.

At today’s conference, you’ll hear from Jon Ashworth who has been doing incredible work championing child health.

And from Angela Rayner, who is doing a brilliant job championing life-long learning.

We meet at a turbulent time.

The next prime minister will be Jeremy Hunt or Boris Johnson.

Neither of them has any kind of proper plan.

The risks of a chaotic No Deal are increasing.

Even though that would hit our manufacturing industry, the backbone of our economy.

In my constituency we’ve got 15,000 manufacturing jobs and we can’t afford for manufacturing to be hit.

Even though No Deal would put policing and security cooperation at risk.

Earlier this year, we worked hard to avert the chaos of No Deal.

Yet the Tories are ramping up the risk of No Deal all over again.

What about their other plans?

After nine years of Tory austerity.

Shortages of GPs and midwives.

Up to 1,000 Sure Starts closed.

Housing budgets slashed,  and now homelessness at a record high.

Parents going hungry to feed their kids.

What is the next Prime Minister’s priority?

Jeremy Hunt – £13bn to cut corporation tax for the richest international companies

Boris Johnson – £9bn cutting income tax for the richest ten percent in the country.

And here’s what Boris Johnson said

“The crash of 2008…. Can you think of anyone who stuck up for the bankers as much as I did? I defended them day in, day out”.

All this rubbish about being a One Nation Tory – Boris Johnson is a fraud and a phoney who helps his rich friends while everyone else loses out.

Our country badly needs serious direction but we are getting a joke.

I think we face a serious political crisis that goes far beyond Brexit.

Our country is deeply and genuinely divided.

Our Union has become fragile.

Our future uncertain.

Two years ago I made a speech at this Fabian Summer Conference – just after the 2017 election.

I talked about the inspiring potential of the new restless, dynamic politics to challenge complacency and demand change. It’s what we need.

But I warned about the darkness at the edge of politics, being exploited by people like Donald Trump or Nigel Farage, being used to undermine the values and institutions we need to hold our country together to sustain democracy or to hold power to account.

Two years on.

Judges called traitors, MPs called saboteurs, the BBC called the enemy. Trust in politics and Parliament collapsed.

The leader of the Free World – our major ally – comes to Britain and launches a social media attack on London’s Muslim Mayor.

A former Cabinet Minister and Privy Councillor proposes using royal powers to close down Parliament for four months so it cannot disagree with his views.

“Gaslighting” becomes a common word in political debate – the twisting of reality, the dissing of truth.

The Tory party – the party of Government – failing to tackle Islamophobia.

And our party, the main opposition party – being investigated by the EHRC because we have disastrously failed to tackle antisemitism.

And then rising vitriol in public debate. As the Secretary General of the UN has said this week, “around the world, hate is on the march… moving into the mainstream in liberal democracies and authoritarian regimes alike – and casting a shadow over our common humanity.”

This isn’t just about elected politicians. I hear from community activists who have given up because of abuse and threats they received just for setting up an online forum to improve their neighbourhood. People who don’t say what they think online anymore because they just get targeted by trolls.

Journalists targeted with torrents of abuse and threats just for doing their job and asking questions.

Fake accounts set up to incite violence and stir anger.

In my case, my staff at one point had to report 35 violent threats or malicious communications to the police in a week.

One was sent as a card addressed to my friends and family; “may I be first to offer my deepest condolences on your forthcoming sad loss. It is never easy when someone is put on an end of life programme. Be prepared for the anger to be unleashed.”

Another called for my severed head to be removed from my vile body.

But this is mild compared to what many of my colleagues get.

The racist threats and abuse targeting Diane Abbott and David Lammy.

The homophobia. The misogyny. The jokes about whether an MP should be raped.

People are being targeted from all sides, people with every possible point of view. Some of the targeting I had was from people who wanted No Deal, but a lot of it isn’t about Brexit at all.

Once upon a time eggs and milkshakes might have been seen as fabulously eccentric, subversive forms of protest. Forgive us if none of it seems funny anymore.

Politics has always involved the fiercest rows and angry disagreements. Democratic politics has never been comfortable, nor should it be. There will always be strong views, loudly expressed. But politics also depends on us being able to find ways to build consensus on things, to be able to listen and not just to shout.

Theresa May said ‘Rigorous debate between political opponents is becoming more like a confrontation between enemies’.

She’s right. But I wish she had thought of that before pursuing the most divisive approach possible to the Brexit process. I wish she had talked about healing and bringing people together straight after the referendum rather than fuelling division. If she had done so at the beginning, we might be in a rather different place now.

But this is about more than Brexit.

So what do we do?

We can’t carry on like this. We are going to pull ourselves and our country apart.

As Fabians, we are optimists. So here’s four suggestions for action we should take.

First we need to strain every sinew to restore kindness and respect to our public debates.

I don’t believe most of our country wants abusive politics.

A minority of people might make threats, but most people are friendly, smiling and happy to chat.

Walk along the street and people are polite. Even when someone else bumps into us, we apologise. Only in our cars do we get road rage. Only behind our screens do we become keyboard warriers

Remember what Jo Cox said about us having “more in common”.

Remember what Jeremy said about a kinder, gentler politics.

Remember that generations of brave people have refused to be silenced by hatred.

Women like Josephine Butler who campaigned against oppressive prostitution laws in my constituency in the 1870s. Such was the determination of her opponents to silence her, they set the building she was speaking in alight and she had to climb out of the window. She wasn’t silenced, the law was changed.

From the first trade unionists to the suffragettes, people have stood firm in the face of threats or abuse and argued for change.

Remember that social media companies could do more and we should make them.

Facebook could tackle the closed groups of thousands of people where incitement to violence and hatred take place.

Google could sort out their algorithms so they don’t radicalise promoting ever more extreme material.

Politics is all about coming together to use power for good. We should do so.

Second, we have to face up to the problems in our party.

I wish I could stand here and talk about what needs to happen in the Tory party to address their problems on Islamophobia or tell you the evidence our select committee has taken about hate crime.

But we have to put our own house in order first.

Because I am so ashamed that our friends and colleagues at the Jewish Labour Movement have been so utterly and repeatedly let down.

That our party has been warned repeatedly about problems with antisemitism. Has promised repeatedly to take action. Yet because we have failed to tackle it, because our systems are not working, prejudice has gone unchallenged.

And I am utterly ashamed when I hear the abuse suffered by great colleagues like Margaret Hodge or  Ruth Smeeth who made an amazing speech on child hunger this week.

Zero tolerance of antisemitism cannot mean giving those who breach the rules and betray our values only a slap on the wrist.

Our party urgently needs a transparent independent process to deal with antisemitism.

If we say we stand for equality and respect.

Words aren’t enough.

As a party we have to prove it.

Third, we can find new ways to reconnect politics, to let people in, with less shouting and more listening, more deliberation, more facts.

And politics that brings people back together, that tries to build consensus rather than always pulling people apart.

I was a sceptic about citizens’ assemblies.

Now I’m a convert. Listening to the experience in Ireland, Canada, Belgium, hearing arguments made by Gordon Brown, Lisa Nandy, Stella Creasy, even Rory Stewart.

Not as an alternative to Parliament. Only Parliament can be sovereign because only Parliament in the end is accountable. But as a supplement to it. To make recommendations in a different way. A way for people with very different views to deliberate, to listen to evidence and listen to each other in a way we struggle to do.

We should hold one on Brexit. This September. There is still – just – time. Two hundred people from across the country. Young and old. Reflecting the referendum result. Given the chance to listen, to deliberate and to conclude.

And a chance to let the rest of us listen for a while, to see what brings people together or what drives people apart.

Whatever Brexit outcome people want, this is worth doing.

Because in the end, if we don’t bring people back together, if we don’t try to build some consensus around whatever the Brexit outcome is, it just won’t last.

Citizens’ assemblies give people the chance to participate, but instead of being keyboard warriors, people come out from behind the screen.

Instead of the road rage, we get out of our cars.

Back on the streets, in front of each other, and we look each other in the eyes again.

Fourth, we need to renew our existing institutions.

Power is too centralised and too distant.

My constituents have no say on the rubbish train service we get.

No say on the rubbish bus service we get.

Decisions are made by unaccountable companies or in Whitehall.

In most of Yorkshire we still don’t have any serious devolution.

So we need much more radical redistribution of power to regions, cities and towns.

But we also need to reconnect Government and Parliament too.

For most people Government feels too distant, too far away from their lives. Power is concentrated in too few hands –and too concentrated geographically too. Economic, political, cultural and financial power are all too concentrated in London and at this rate that gap with the rest of the country is going to keep growing and growing which isn’t good for any of us.

So why not do something bold?

Think about moving Parliament, the Government and all its departments, the Treasury, the Health Department, the Transport department to Leeds. Or Manchester. Or Birmingham. All together.

Change the way the Government and the civil service looks on the world. Change the shape of the public sector economy. Change the way government looks at the country and the country looks at Parliament and Government.

Because here’s the thing.

The country is polarised now. The centre isn’t holding because the centre wasn’t working.

We should bring back moderation in our manner but radicalism in our ideas.

Building consensus doesn’t mean defending the status quo.

I think back to that 1943 picture of the Fabian summer school. The speeches from the hay cart. The audience lying on the grass. Men in khaki or in shorts. Women in summer dresses and cardis.

And the thing that strikes me. It’s 1943. Some of our darkest days. And yet you can see the optimism on their faces. The hope. The determination. The dreamy ideals. The practical common sense. The Fabianism.

Within a few years they were building the peace, the NHS, the welfare state. They could do anything, so can we.

Watch the speech here.

Yvette Cooper MP

Yvette Cooper is chair of the home affairs select committee, MP for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford and chair of The Changing Work Centre.


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