top of page



He was very calm for a man at his wit’s end. I guess it was his training. Richard had come to my residents' meeting in Shard End desperate for help, because as an army veteran on an army pension, he could simply no longer afford to pay his bills. So he was going to bed at 6pm every night in his army sleeping bag, just to stay warm. He’d served Queen and Country in uniform, defending our freedoms for 18 years. But what did freedom now mean for him, who had sworn to defend us if necessary with his life? Nothing. Yet since Mrs Thatcher, the right’s story of liberty has been the animating force for election victory after election victory. For the last 13 years, they have governed to a refrain of the same old hymns to liberty we’ve heard since the Seventies, adding a few new potent verses as ‘Brexit freedoms.’

David Cameron opened his pitch for the Tory leadership saying he “joined this party because I believe in freedom.” Theresa May insisted her watchwords were security, freedom and opportunity. Boris Johnson notoriously compared Brexit to the Ukrainian’s fight for freedom and declared “the British people voted for Brexit in such large numbers… because they wanted to be free to do things differently.” Amidst the parties, he offered a flagship bill called the Brexit Freedoms Bill. And then there was Liz Truss. She didn’t last long enough to make many speeches. But she gave us a few tweets like the immortal observation that “This generation are #Uber-riding #Airbnb-ing #Deliveroo-eating #freedomfighters "freedom" "liberty" "emancipation" They use these words as a punch line. We should use these words as the inspiration for a politics that builds a better country. Because I can tell you after 13 years of Tory rule, most of my constituents don’t feel they’re luxuriating in some Elysium of liberty They feel that life is a lottery In a country where millions of people are prisoners of anxiety, Trapped by a tyranny of poverty, fear and insecurity. In an economy where the strong can dictate terms to the weak.

And where the rich buy influence denied to the poor at the ballot box. How can there be freedom from fear when the police solve just six per cent of crime? What liberty is there for the one in eight workers no longer free to earn enough with the sweat of their brow to lift their families out of poverty? It was an old Liberal Lord Chancellor, Robert Henley who once said: “Necessitous men are not free men.” Well, on that logic, more than one in five of our fellow citizens are not free; 14.5 million people are now trapped in the tyranny of poverty. What freedom is there for those who are prisoners of ill health – ill health that means residents of inner city Birmingham Birmingham are free to live eight years less than the residents of nearby Sutton Coldfield? What freedom can there be for those trapped in the prison of darkness and ignorance? Or for those – almost one in five of our neighbours – who are trapped in the prison of loneliness, without access to a universal basic mobility? What meaningful freedom can there be for those who have the same right as me, to shape the future of my community, but who are shut out by prejudice, or hate, or disrespect or even a digital illiteracy without access to our shared cultural life? For the Tories, the threat to freedom is always the tyranny of dire states - and never the tyranny of dire straits. They ignore the ogre that is the over-mighty employer or the monster which is misfortune. Yet these are the threats to freedom in the real world.

And that is why it is time we took on the Tories’ on their home ground because the Tories’ account of freedom is so flimsy that it is little more than a fiction - but thought it may be reductive - it is seductive which is why we must take it on with something better. Tonight I want to set out the three basic reasons - and three basic ways, we could and should re-claim freedom from the Right. First, freedom is our history. It should be the fountain-head of our thinking. From the beginning of popular politics, it was the left, not the right, that made the argument for freedom. From the Levellers to the Chartists, From the Glorious Revolution to the American Revolution, From Franklin Delano Roosevelt to Clement Attlee, the cry for freedom brought down old tyrannies, established democracies and delivered the rights we cherish today. It was Attlee himself who pronounced after World War II that “We, in the Labour party, declare that we are in line with those who fought for Magna Carta, habeas corpus, with the Pilgrim Fathers and with the signatories of the Declaration of Independence”. Yet from the Seventies on, we neglected the story. And so we left a void for the right to fill with error. (2) Second, we have something unique to say. The right has always insisted that freedom is merely the absence of constraint.

Our distinctive insight has always been that liberty does not last long without security and does not mean much without power. If we are to ensure everyday freedoms are stout, strong and sturdy, we need the collective force of society to deliver both security to all and power to each. That is why it was always the task of the Labour party to build mutual aid and social security so we can guard each other against the twists of fate. We understood as Franklin Roosevelt put it, “true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security”. When cooperation is enlarged wisely, so freedom is multiplied greatly. That cooperative ethos of society, our common will, our collective consent, is called government. And the way government delivers both security to all and power to each is through a framework of rights. But life changes - and so should rights. (3) And therein lies the third reason for reclaiming freedom today. Because rights should not be static. Some rights are eternal. But, if we want each of us to share in society’s progress, some rights must evolve. The Magna Carta says a lot about the whys and wherefores of policing fish weirs but very little about digital literacy.

Right now, too many of our citizens are ensnared in the insecurities of today and at risk of losing the possibilities of tomorrow, possibilities which are multiplying every day thanks to the 9 million scientists now at work – Ninety per cent of scientists who ever worked are at work today in a community vastly bigger than the teams that gave us the Manhattan Project or the Apollo space programme and backed by $1.7 trillion in global science spending. Their breakthroughs will mean that over the years to come, we could all have freedoms, autonomy, options, choices and control that we can only dream of today. But only if we fairly share the future. That is why it makes sense to spell out today the freedoms and liberties, obligations and duties necessary for us to live life to the full in the 21st century. So this is our task today. To take on the ogres of Crime Exploitation Poverty Poisonous air Ill-health Ignorance

Prejudice Isolation Hopelessness. And build instead a country where there is Freedom to walk the streets free of fear of crime Freedom to earn an honest days pay for an honest days work Freedom to learn, to unlock our inner potential, to find our true vocation Freedom to roam, to pursue our curiosity Freedom to flourish. To thrive. To dare to dream. If we stand together we can make these ideals a reality. To guide us, first, we should enshrine a new Bill of Powers and Duties to Safety Work Decency Nature Health

Learning Respect Mobility Participation Hope. Second, we should rescue the Public Sector Equality Duty in the Equality Act. Fully in force, that act should require all public authorities subject to the duty to ‘have due regard’ to equality considerations when exercising public functions.74 Activating section one of the Act (which the Tories have failed to do) would place a duty on public authorities to have regard for socio-economic inequalities in their decisions - and we could update the Act to include a need to have due regard for advancing equality in the rights and powers set out in our list. Third, we could actually enshrine our ambition to deliver this agenda by modernising our own clause IV, the Labour party’s statement of aims and values which – curiously for a party of equality – does not currently mention equality or our ambition to achieve it. That would provide a powerful political statement of what it is we are all about. Conclusion

Now, I know that a proposal for a Bill of Powers and Duties is unlikely to be on the Pledge cad. But the measures needed to translate it into action would have wide appeal - and express our purpose, our unique role in Britain’s history as the great democratisers of opportunity and our excitement about the possibilities of the future. Reclaiming freedom would help us wax lyrical about how we see our country as a special place: ‘isles of wonder’, a green and pleasant land, a place that changed the world. A land of extraordinary science, the cradle of industrial revolution, the mother of parliaments. A people that stood up to despots and dictators – even when that meant beating the odds and defending our freedom alone. The Labour party was born in communities that came together to fight for fair play and democratise freedom. We were created by people who believed that we all have the same freeborn rights, and who learned the hard way that, sometimes, we have to unite to fight to make those rights a reality – just as we have had to unite to care for each other. The Tories have always been a me, me, me party Labour is the ‘we party’ We believe that by pulling together we can create for each and every one of us something extraordinary the freedom to be you.

And that is at the heart of the battle between left and right for the decade to come.


bottom of page