Emily Thornberry Labour MP for Islington South and Finsbury
For those of you who couldn’t take part, I wanted to share some of the speeches I made at Labour’s online party conference, which took place instead of our usual Autumn gathering in Liverpool. First up was a speech I made to the Open Labour rally, setting out how Labour’s priorities on trade compare to the government’s. You can read the full speech below, and watch a short clip here.
Thank you to Alex Sobel and Open Labour for inviting me to join you today and thanks to all of you online who are making this rally and this conference such a great success.
We may not be together in Liverpool but we are certainly together in spirit, and in the sessions I have taken part in — and watched — so far, I see a unity, an energy and a sense of purpose from which we can all take heart and take hope.
But if anyone needs another reason to feel positive this week, let me just mention a lesson from history.
It was this week 120 years ago that a cynical and opportunistic Tory government called an election to capitalise on a single issue, in that case, the conduct of the Boer War.
It was the last genuine single-issue election until the one we had last December, and naturally, back in 1900, the Tories won a majority of 141 seats, and the newspapers began to speculate that the Liberal Opposition, which had lost three elections in a row, would never be in power again.
But of course, that is not quite how it turned out. At the very next election in 1906, the Tories collapsed to their worst result in history losing 246 seats, and handing the Liberal Opposition a majority of 130.
And why did that happen? Because the ‘single-issue’ of the Boer War had turned into a disaster, and because the Tory Party was totally torn apart by — of all things — its policy on International Trade.
So if anyone tells you we can’t win power next time, remind them of 1906, and say: ‘Yes we can!’ And if anyone tells you International Trade doesn’t matter, remind them of the Tories’ worst ever election result, and say: ‘Yes it does!’
But friends, there are many more reasons besides historical precedents why International Trade matters, and that’s what I want to speak to you about today.
The fact is that — here in Britain – we haven’t been in charge of our own trade policy for almost half a century. And even for those of us — like me and Alex – who fiercely opposed Brexit, we can acknowledge that there is something historic and momentous about the opportunity we’ve had from 2016 onwards, as one of the biggest economies in the world, to take an entirely fresh look at how we approach the issue of trade.
And for me, there should have been three fundamental priorities when that opportunity arose four years ago.
The first, the most obvious, and the most important was to preserve all the Free Trade that we have within the European Union, and roll over all the Free Trade Agreements that we have because of the European Union.
It was the most basic task: just to ensure that all of the trade on which our economy is currently so reliant continues unaffected — beyond the Brexit transition period. That of all things should have been a no-brainer, and they’ve had more than four years to sort it out.
So the fact that — with almost One Hundred Days to go – we still don’t have a deal in place with Europe, and half our EU trade agreements with other countries have still not been rolled over to continue post-Brexit is an act of utter incompetence, and total economic negligence, at a time when, because of the Coronavirus crisis, our country can least afford it.
So what would have been Priority One for the Labour Party on Trade has so far been dismally failed by the Tories.
Priority Two for Labour would have been to sit down with all the other countries around the world where we don’t have existing Trade Deals, and seek to negotiate new Free Trade Agreements.
But again, the government has had four years. Again, they’ve got 100 days to go. And again, they’ve got absolutely nothing to show but failure. Not one single genuinely new Free Trade Agreement with any country anywhere in the world.
Liz Truss said the other day in the House of Commons that her objective was that, after Brexit, 80 per cent of our current global trade would be covered by Free Trade Deals. But here’s the reality.
As things stand, if nothing changes between now and January, and we don’t get a deal with the EU, we will start the new year as a country with just 8 per cent – not 80 but just 8 per cent — of our global trade covered by Free Trade Deals.
So that would have been Priority Two for Labour on Trade, and it has been catastrophically failed by the Tories.
Which brings me to Labour’s Third Priority, and one which is particularly important to me. Because when I spoke about the opportunity that we have had as a country since 2016 once trade policy was put back in our own hands, one of the major things I had in mind was the opportunity to focus on issues that were not the priorities they should have been back in the 1970s, as far as trade was concerned.
Issues like human rights and climate change; labour laws and gender equality; the protection of global peace and the promotion of international development. Suddenly, we had an opportunity to put those issues at the heart of our modern trade policy, and the trade deals that we make around the world.
An opportunity to develop a truly progressive trade policy, which isn’t just about agreeing financial terms but is also about setting ethical conditions.
So for example, if we’re going to do a trade deal with South Korea or Algeria or Turkey, we should be making it conditional on those countries signing up to the international rules and standards on workers rights, modern slavery and child labour, and including meaningful penalty clauses in those deals if those rules and standards aren’t met.
If we’re going to do a trade deal with Colombia, Malaysia or Australia, we should be making it conditional on those countries taking action on climate change and environmental protection rather than making ourselves complicit in the destruction of rainforest, the persecution of indigenous peoples, or the increased reliance on fossil fuels.
If we’re going to do a trade deal with Egypt or Cameroon or Honduras, we should be making it conditional on those countries showing respect for human rights and democratic freedoms, not just signing on the dotted line as they continue to lock up or kill protesters, political opponents, and journalists.
And if we’re going to do a trade deal with Morocco, Brunei or Uganda, we should be making it conditional on those countries protecting the rights of women and LGBT people, not – through our trade – legitimising the hateful prejudice of their governments.
Every single one of those countries I’ve mentioned is one with whom the Tory government has already negotiated, or is trying to negotiate, post-Brexit trade agreements, and yet in not one single case have they made any progress on any of the issues I have mentioned.
Indeed, in not one single case does it look as though those issues have even been on the negotiating table.
And even when we’re not talking about new trade deals, but just about our current exports, I am clear that a Labour government would no longer sell arms to countries like Saudi Arabia to be used against innocent civilians in Yemen, or approve the export of tear gas and rubber bullets to be used against peaceful protesters, whether it is on the streets of Minneapolis or the border fence in Gaza.
But by contrast, this Tory government looks at what is happening in Yemen and dismisses the deaths of thousands of women and children in Saudi air strikes as “isolated incidents”.
They look at what has happened in cities across America since May – the tear-gassing, the rubber-bullets, the clubbing of peaceful protesters and journalists – and they say there is no evidence of ‘internal repression’.
So what would have been Priority Three for Labour – an ethical approach to trade decisions and trade deals – has not just been totally failed by the Tories, but totally ignored.
And that is sadly no surprise from a Tory Party which only cares about the finances of potential trade deals, not the implications they have for the lives of people around the world and for the planet that we all share.
A Tory Party whose Holy Grail on Trade is a Deal with Donald Trump, and which would be prepared to sell our Food Standards, our Farming Communities, and our beloved NHS down the river if they thought that would get it done.
A Tory Party that got rid of every single Trade Union, every single Consumer Group, every single NGO, and even got rid of the CBI from its Independent Trade Advisory Groups, because they refused to sign gagging orders about what the government was really negotiating.
And a Tory Party which had the choice of anyone in the world to recruit to their Board of Trade, anyone in the world to bang the drum for Britain overseas, and decided to choose Tony Abbott: a racist, hate-filled, leering, misogynist Donald Trump Tribute Act.
A man who — on top of all his grotesque personal beliefs – says that Climate Change is a good thing, and that Labour Rights and the Environment are ‘peripheral issues’, which should not be allowed to get in the way of trade deals.
I do not want a man like that going round the world representing Britain and speaking for our country, whether it’s on trade or anything else.
Which is why for me the biggest scandal of his appointment was when my opposite number, Liz Truss, the Secretary of State for International Trade, but also – somehow – the Minister for Women and Equalities, was asked to justify the comments Tony Abbott had made against women, against LGBT people and against minorities.
And her response – her shameful response – was this: “I am”, she said, “The Minister for Women and Equalities in Britain”.
So it didn’t matter what Tony Abbott had said about women, same-sex couples or minorities in Australia, or wherever else in the world he has spread his hateful rhetoric about immigrants and refugees, because as far as Liz Truss was concerned, that is none of her business.
And that is how the Tories think about the world. That is how they think about trade. That is their morality and their mindset. That is why their priorities could not be more different to ours. And that is why we need to kick them out of office the very next chance we get.
Because a Labour Government would be different. We would introduce that ethical, sustainable, progressive trade policy, which doesn’t just promote UK business overseas, but also promotes the values we stand for as a country.
A trade policy which doesn’t just protect our export markets but also protects human rights, workers rights, gender equality, and the environment, in the countries where we see them under threat.
Friends, we know have a mountain to climb to get back into government, and an even bigger mountain lying in wait when we get there, if we want to change our country, and change our world in the ways that we all dream.
But we can always promise one thing: we will never decide it’s too difficult to try; we will never say that now is not the time.
And specifically when it comes to trade, we can promise as well that we will never sign unconditional trade deals with dictators on the despicable basis that if British interests are not affected, then British values cease to matter.
Nor will we sell bombs and guns to war criminals on the shameful rationale, that if we don’t, then someone else will.
That is the Tory way. But we are better than that. The British people are better than that. And they deserve a government that is better than that.
So my friends, we have a long climb ahead, but with your support, with all our combined effort, and with the vision, the passion and the unity that we celebrate in Open Labour, we can get there together, we can change what our country stands for in the world, and we can build the better future we need.