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Monday, September 27, 1999 Published at 08:04 GMT 09:04 UK

UK Politics

Margaret McDonagh's speech

This is the full text of the opening address at Labour's conference by General Secretary Margaret McDonagh:

Almost a century ago 129 men gathered in central London. The meeting they held went unreported by most papers. But its outcome changed British politics and British life forever.

It led to a fundamental and irreversible shift in how ordinary men and women thought of themselves.

Because by founding the Labour Party they gave working people the opportunity and the confidence to represent themselves in parliament.

Our founders knew that the many, were as capable as the privileged few. And they built a political vehicle that harnessed the ideals, the skills, the energy, the ambition, indeed the _entrepreneurship_ of working people.

Our founders recognised that to achieve a just and fair society meant more than a list of demands. It meant taking power into your own hands rejecting the culture of dependency in favour of doing it for ourselves.

So next February we will be marking one hundred years of the Labour Party. One hundred years of working for justice, fairness and prosperity for all.

This year_s conference would be unrecognisable to the delegates, who attended our founding meeting in 1900. The sheer scale of the event 20,000 delegates, visitors, and journalists, would be unimaginable. Beaming moving pictures of speeches into people_s homes, a futuristic dream. And our 418 Labour MPs would far outstrip their wildest hopes.

But although many of the developments of the 20th century, would shock and surprise them, I am certain that the founding fathers of our party would be proud of how we have translated their values into action.

All Labour governments this century have changed Britain for the better. They have legislated in favour of, the many not the few.

Since 1997 we have built on that record. Delivering the political dreams of our founders.

They desired home rule, we have delivered a parliament for Scotland and an assembly for Wales

They wanted a parliament without privilege, we have delivered the abolition of hereditary peers

They fought for working people to be able to organise, we have delivered, for the first time ever, the legal right to be a member of a trade union and the right to have that trade union recognised.

They demanded an end to poverty pay, we have delivered the National Minimum Wage.

They wanted to introduce prohibition We decided to test that one with a focus group!

But more than any Labour government this century we are reflecting the party_s core values. Placing work and enterprise at the centre of what we are doing: providing opportunities for work, and rewarding work recognising and celebrating success in all fields acknowledging that an entrepreneurial spirit and social justice must go hand in hand

It is by remaining true to those core values, whilst adapting to the needs of changing times, that we have survived the century. And we must continue to adapt to keep apace of a changing world.

The sheer speed of modern life is transforming how we live and work. Technology is eroding traditional boundaries, between office and home. Email, mobile phones, laptops and, dare I say it, even pagers all mean that leisure time can be invaded by work.

And national boundaries seem to shrink, as companies get bigger. Globalisation can make us all feel very small and disconnected. But, properly harnessed, information technology can work to benefit us all.

The challenge of the 21st century is for us to give citizens more control over their own lives.

Our party must rise to that challenge. We must ensure that the institutions we operate, and create, are relevant and rooted in local need.

And if we build institutions which fail to do this, then we should be big enough to recognise the problems and act to solve them. And that means if our European constituencies, prove too big for people to find them relevant then we must make those constituencies smaller.

Because remaining in touch with local parties and local communities is crucial to staying in government. For while we can celebrate our electoral successes in the 20th century we need to remember they were few and far between.

Even the Labour government that brought you the NHS, was unable to see through a second term. And we know that enduring, deep-seated, long-lasting change cannot be delivered in just one parliament.

I remember the feeling we all had on the night of May 1st. And I know we sometimes think we will never get that buzz again. And I hope we won_t! Because never again do I want to wait so long, for us to win a general election.

But we mustn_t live in the past. The next election presents a new challenge and I believe that meeting it, could and should give us an even greater sense of achievement.

Because we can do something unique. Something no Labour member has ever done before. We can campaign to re-elect a Labour government with a large enough majority to see through a second term.

And that campaign starts with us. Labour Party members. Labour Party activists. For we cannot take anything for granted. Voter behaviour is changing. Traditional party loyalties are weakening.

We have to work for every vote but when we do we win support. We all saw this in the key seats at the last election. Continued work in those constituencies, has shown how being active affects our level of support. We must take the lessons of our key seats into all our seats.

We must retain all the 146 seats we gained at the last election, and not just the ninety key seats.

That is why: we are establishing, a new academy of organisers. Investing in the professionals who will help you win the battle in the constituencies, and build the party of the future.

That is why we have developed: a new communications package, launched this week. Every bit of it designed to give you the support you need as an activist:

  • a new website with free internet access and an email address for every member who wants it: giving you immediate up-to-date information so you don_t first read about it, in the newspapers.
  • a leasing scheme to provide state of the art computers for all CLPs: so that no party is left behind
  • a Windows based voter ID system to improve our contact, with our communities
  • and a new membership system which will improve the standards of service we offer to you, and which will be available on-line to constituencies next year.

New technology to support new Labour.

But we need to do more, for any organisation whose structure is based on what was appropriate in 1918, is not ready to face the challenges of the new millennium. So we will be consulting members on our future structures. That consultation will involve us all and will be led by Ian McCartney, although sadly you will understand why he is not here with us today.

The consultation is entitled "21st century party - members the key to our future". It is a title that sums up what we have to do. Build a party for the new millennium that involves as many members as possible. So that we are ready for the next election.

We have great advantages as we prepare for that battle. We are the biggest political party in the country. For the first time in our history we have more members than the Tories. And we have the most popular government in living memory. These two facts are not unconnected. They are mutually dependent.

And while none of us can ever guarantee an election victory we can, each of us, ensure that the Labour Party remains strong. And that is why I am issuing a centenary challenge to members. The challenge is not in itself huge, but it could transform our party. We are all asked, General Secretaries included, to do one thing above all else: recruit a new member.

It is a sobering fact that we spend 25% of our time at party meetings but only 2% recruiting new members. Yet we all know, that our party has only lasted 100 years because of our members not our meetings!

The party I joined in 1978, the party you joined at different times this century was created by our predecessors. And we have a responsibility to leave a stronger party, for those who will come after us.

New members are the life-blood of our party: they are the activists, councillors and MPs of the future. For among the people who join this week inspired by Conference could even be a future Labour Prime Minister.

The centenary challenge and the 21st century party consultation are both about increasing membership, and increasing the involvement of members.

All members must feel able to make an active contribution to the party. To put their desire for a modern and just society into action. For we have to be honest with ourselves. The Labour Party only does well when it is active, strong and united.

Our founders, the trade unions, the Fabians and the Co-op worked in partnership to create our party to give a voice to those without power. They knew that they had to work together to create the society they wanted. They were people inspired by change. They were people excited by change. By combining together they created a party dedicated to change.

By working together we in this hall, and all those who came before us, have changed the course of this century. By going forward together we can shape the course of the next.

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