Liberal Democrats, we have now been in Government for 500 days. Not easy, is it? None of us thought it would be a walk in the park, but I suspect none of us predicted just how tough it would turn out to be. We’ve lost support, we’ve lost councillors, and we lost a referendum. I know how painful it has been to face anger and frustration on the doorstep.
Some of you may have even wondered: Will it all be worth it in the end? It will be. And today I want to explain why.
But above all I want to pay tribute to you. Your resilience. Your grace under fire. I have been genuinely moved by your spirit and your strength. Thank you. Thank you, above all, for never forgetting what we are in politics for. After the May elections, Alex Cole-Hamilton, one of our defeated candidates in Edinburgh said that if losing was part payment for ending child detention then, as he said: “I accept it, with all my heart.”
That is the liberal spirit and that is something we will never lose. The spirit that gave birth to our party a century and half ago, that kept us alive when the other two parties tried to kill us off. The spirit that means however great our past, our fight will always be for a better future.
Down in Westminster we’ve been vilified like never before. The Left and the Right didn’t like us much in opposition. They like us a whole lot less in Government. The Left accuse us of being powerless puppets, duped by a right wing Conservative clique. The Right accuse us of being a sinister left wing clique, who’ve duped powerless Conservatives. I do wish they’d make up their mind.
So yes, it has been hard. And adversity tests the character of a party just as it tests any person. We’ve shown – you’ve shown – immense strength. After being hit hard, we picked ourselves up and we came out fighting. Fighting to keep the NHS safe. Fighting to protect human rights. Fighting to create jobs. Fighting for every family. Not doing the easy thing, but doing the right thing. Not easy, but right.
And as for all those seats we lost in May, let me tell you this: I won’t rest, we won’t rest, until we’ve won every single one of those seats back.
These may not be easy times for us as a party. But much more importantly: These are not easy times for the country. Economic insecurity. Conflict and terrorism. Disorder flaring up on our streets. Times like these can breed protectionism and populism. So times like these are when liberals are needed most. Our party has fought for liberal values for a century and half: justice, optimism, freedom. We’re not about to give up now.
This conference centre is on the site of the old Bingley Hall where William Gladstone stood a hundred and thirty years ago to found the National Liberal Federation. Gladstone observed that day that Birmingham had shown it was no place for ‘weak-kneed Liberalism’. No change there then.
So we are strong. United. True to our values. Back in Government and on your side.In Government you’re faced with hard choices every day. The question is how you make them. Some ask ‘how can we get a market to work here?’ Others ‘how can this win us more votes?’ A few ‘what will the press think?’ For liberals, the litmus test is always the national interest. Not doing the easy thing. Doing the right thing.
And that takes a certain kind of character. One which we’ve seen on display over the last few months. And indeed the last few days here in Birmingham . Brave. Principled. Awkward. Resolute. Optimistic. Unstoppable. No I’m not just talking about Paddy Ashdown. I am talking about everyone in this hall.
But I think people still need to know more about the character of our party. Not just how we govern, but why. We proved something about ourselves last year, when we faced a historic choice: Whether or not to enter Government in coalition with the Conservatives.
The easy thing would have been to sit on the opposition benches throwing rocks at the Government as it tried to get control of the public finances. It might even, in the short run, have been more popular, but it would not have been right. At that moment, Britain needed a strong government.
Alistair Darling’s recent book is called “Back from the Brink”—in reality Labour left us on the brink. Teetering on the edge of an economic precipice. So we put aside party differences for the sake of the national interest. People before politics. Nation before party. And while other countries have been riven by political bickering, we have shown that a coalition forged in a time of emergency could be a different kind of government, governing differently.
Because let me tell you this: You don’t play politics at a time of national crisis. You don’t play politics with the economy. And you never, ever play politics with people’s jobs.
Our first big decision was to clear the structural deficit this parliament. To wipe the slate clean by 2015. This has meant painful cuts. Agonisingly difficult decisions. Not easy, but right. Because handing control of the economy to the bond traders: that’s not progressive.
Burying your head in the sand: that’s not liberal. Saddling our children with the nation’s debt: that’s not fair.
Labour says: the Government is going too far, too fast. I say, Labour would have offered too little, too late. Imagine if Ed Miliband and Ed Balls had still been in power. Gordon Brown’s backroom boys when Labour was failing to balance the books, failing to regulate the financial markets, and failing to take on the banks. The two Eds, behind the scenes, lurking in the shadows, always plotting, always scheming, never taking responsibility. At this time of crisis what Britain needs is real leadership. This is no time for the back room boys
Labour’s economy was based on bad debt and false hope. Labour got us into this mess. But they are clueless about how to get us out. Another term of Labour would have been a disaster for our economy. So don’t for a moment let Labour get away with it. Don’t forget the chaos and fear of 2008. And never, ever trust Labour with our economy again.
Government has brought difficult decisions. Of course the most heart wrenching for me, for all of us, was on university funding. Like all of you, I saw the anger. I understand it. I felt it. I have learned from it. And I know how much damage this has done to us as a party. By far the most painful part of our transition. From the easy promises of opposition to the invidious choices of Government.
Probably the most important lesson I have learned is this: No matter how hard you work on the details of a policy, it’s no good if the perception is wrong. We can say until we’re blue in the face that no one will have to pay any fees as a student, but still people don’t believe it. That once you’ve left university you’ll pay less, week in week out, than under the current system, but still people don’t believe it. That the support given to students from poorer families will increase dramatically, but still people don’t believe it.
The simple truth is that the Conservatives and Labour were both set on increasing fees, and in those circumstances we did the best thing we could. Working tirelessly to ensure anyone who wants to go to university can. Freeing part time students from up front fees for the first time. Ensuring fairer repayments for all graduates. But we failed to properly explain those dilemmas. We failed to explain that there were no other easy options. And we have failed so far to show that the new system will be much, much better than people fear.
So: lessons learned. But the most important thing now is to get out there and show that university is for everyone. We should all take a leaf out of Simon Hughes’ book—who has been busting a gut as the Government’s Advocate for Access. Travelling the country, explaining the new system and finding ways to get young people from all backgrounds to apply to university. Simon didn’t like the decision we made, and for reasons I respect. But rather than sitting back he has rolled up his sleeves and got on with making the new system work. Simon, thank you.
Right now, our biggest concern is of course the economy. The recovery is fragile. Every worker, every family knows that. There is a long, hard road ahead. In the last few days alone we have seen a financial storm in the Eurozone. Rising unemployment. Falling stock markets.
So we were right to pull the economy back from the brink. It is clearer now than ever that deficit reduction was essential to protect the economy, to protect homes and jobs. Deficit reduction lays the foundations for growth. But on its own it is not enough. That’s why we’re already: investing in infrastructure, reducing red tape, promoting skills, getting the banks lending. But the outlook for the global economy has got worse. So we need to do more, we can do more, and we will do more for growth and for jobs.
Because we’re not in politics just to repair the damage done by Labour, to glue back together the pieces of the old economy. We are here to build a new economy. A new economy safe from casino speculation. That’s why a Liberal Democrat business secretary is putting a firewall into the banking system.
Protecting the people who have worked hard and saved. A new economy that safeguards the environment. That’s why a Liberal Democrat environment secretary is creating the world’s first Green Investment Bank, spending three billion pounds to create green jobs.
A new economy where the lowest-paid get to keep the money they earn. That’s why a Liberal Democrat chief secretary to the Treasury has put two hundred pounds into the pocket of every basic rate taxpayer and taken almost a million workers – most of them women – out of income tax altogether.
A new economy based on skills. That’s why one Liberal Democrat minister is creating a quarter of a million new apprenticeships, and another is investing in schools and early years education.
A new economy that works for families. Where men and women can choose how to balance work and home. That’s why Liberal Democrats are bringing in shared parental leave and more flexible working.
And a new economy run for ordinary people rather than big finance. After the so-called masters of the universe turned out to be masters of destruction instead. Which is why when we come to sell those bank shares, I want to see a payback to every citizen. Your money was put at risk. Your money was used to bail out the banks. And so the money made by the banks is your money, too. An economy for everyone: In Scotland, Wales, in every part of the United Kingdom . For women and men. Young, old. Town, country. North, South. A new economy for the whole nation.
Because as Liberal Democrats we act for the whole nation. In our long, proud liberal history, we have never served: the media moguls, the union barons or the bankers. We do not serve, and we will never serve, vested interests. We are in nobody’s pocket. That’s why we can make decisions in the national interest: Not easy, but right.
That’s why we speak up, first and loudest, when the establishment lets the people down. In the last three years, we’ve seen establishment institutions exposed one by one. The City of London , shattered by the greed of bankers. The media, corrupted by phone hacking. Parliament, shamed by expenses.
I was brought up to know that it is not polite to say ‘I told you so’. But I’m sorry: We did. In 2006 when Vince Cable warned that “bad debts were growing” and that bank lending levels were “recklessly irresponsible”. In 2002 when Tom McNally said: “The Government must guard the public interest as assiduously as Mr Murdoch guards his shareholder interests.” And in 1996 when Paddy said that Parliament had become “A rotten mess…a dishevelled, disfigured old corpse of what was once called the Mother of Parliaments.” Free to tell it like it really is because we are in nobody’s pocket.
Of all the claims Ed Miliband has made, the most risible is that his party is the enemy of vested interests. While we were campaigning for change in the banking system, they were on their prawn cocktail offensive in the City. While we’ve led the charge against the media barons, Labour has cowered before them for decades. The most shocking thing about the news that Tony Blair is godfather to one of Rupert Murdoch’s children is that nobody was really shocked at all.
And today Labour is in hock to the trade union barons: After their government stipend, 95% of Labour’s money comes from unions. Most of it from just four of them. Let me be clear: The values of trade unionism are as relevant as ever. Supporting workers. Fighting for fairness at work. But I don’t think the unions should be able to buy themselves a political party. Ed Miliband says he wants to loosen the ties between Labour and the union barons who helped him beat his brother. Let’s see him put his money where his mouth is. Let’s see if he’ll support radical reform of party funding. Every previous attempt has been blocked by the vested interests in the other two parties.
We are all stuck in a system that we know is wrong. We’ve all been damaged by it. But if we learned anything from the expenses scandal. It is surely that if the system’s broken. We should not wait for the next scandal. We should fix it and fix it fast.
So whether it is securing the economy, sorting the banks or cleaning up politics, we are making the big, difficult decisions. Not easy, but right. That’s what it means to be a party of national government again. Not just making arguments, making change.
In a coalition, we have two kinds of power: The power to hold our coalition partners back and the power to move the government forwards. So we can keep the government to a liberal path. Anchor the government in the centre ground.
We were absolutely right to stop the NHS bill in its tracks. To ensure change on our terms. No arbitrary deadlines. No backdoor privatization. No threat to the basic principles at the heart of our NHS.
We are right to stand up for civil liberties. No retreat to the illiberal populism of the Labour years. We are right to insist on keeping the tax system fair. Asking the most of the people who have the most. And we will always defend human rights, at home as well as abroad. The European Convention on Human Rights and the Human Rights Act are not, as some would have you believe, foreign impositions. These are British rights, drafted by British lawyers. Forged in the aftermath of the atrocities of the Second World War. Fought for by Winston Churchill. So let me say something really clear about the Human Rights Act. In fact I’ll do it in words of one syllable: It is here to stay.
So we will always hold the liberal line. But much more important is the positive power of government: Not just stopping bad things but doing good things.
Last year I walked through the door of No 10. But we all walked through a kind of door together. To being, once again, a party of national government. So we must move now beyond the reflexes of opposition to the responsibilities of government, and the opportunities of government, too. New social housing. Criminal justice reform. Fixed term parliaments. Keeping our Post Offices open. House of Lords reform. Better mental health care. Safer banks. Income tax down for ordinary workers. Capital gains tax up for the rich. Compulsory retirement scrapped. Pensions protected by a triple lock. ID cards: history. Child detention: ended.
Just look at what we’ve announced in the last five days. After decades of campaigning, and thanks to Lynne Featherstone: Equal marriage, straight or gay. More power for consumers over the energy companies. Calling time on rewards for failure in boardrooms. Investing in education for girls in developing countries. New powers to turn empty homes back into family homes. A five hundred million pound investment in growth. Liberal achievements from a liberal party of government.
And we have stood by our commitments to act on the environment. The pollsters tell us that climate change has dropped down people’s list of worries. That people have more immediate concerns. I understand that. So the politically convenient thing would have been to put this off to another day. Instead we have acted immediately. Not easy, but right. Ambitious carbon targets. Energy market reform. Councils generating renewable energy. A Green Deal to make bills lower and homes warmer. Carbon capture and storage. Green buses, trains and trams. The world’s first ever green investment bank. Green achievements. From a green party of government.
I’ve learned quite a bit in the last 500 days. About the responsibilities of government. About the resilience of our party. The integrity of our members. About our determination to do the right thing.
In government, every single day brings hard choices. You can quickly lose your way unless you are certain of your cause. Of why you are there in the first place. Every one of us in this hall has strong political convictions: Civil liberties. Internationalism. Human rights. Political reform. Responsible capitalism. Fighting climate change. But every one of us has a political passion too. The fire inside that drew us to politics in the first place. Let me tell you what I care most about. My passion is ensuring a fair start for every child. I have a simple, unquenchable belief: That every child can do good things, great things if only we give them the opportunities they deserve.
Equal opportunity. It sounds so simple doesn’t it? Everyone agrees with it. But then we allow prejudice, tradition and class to crush a million hopes and dreams, watch young children’s lives go off track even before they go off to school, sit idly by while talent goes to waste. I know I have had all the advantages – good school, great parents. I was lucky. But it shouldn’t be about luck.
On Saturday I met a group of young people working with a charity called UpRising, here in Birmingham . All from really difficult backgrounds. One young woman, Chantal, told me that she only started to thrive when she found someone who believed in her. I want every child to believe in themselves. In terms of opportunity, we are a nation divided:
Children from a poor background a year behind in language skills before the age of five; more young black men in prisons than at Russell Group universities. And within one city, two nations: In Hammersmith and Fulham in West London , more than half the children leaving state schools head to a good university. Just thirty minutes east—down the district line to Tower Hamlets—and just 4 percent do. Odds stacked against too many of our children. A deep injustice, when birth is destiny. That’s why I’ve been leading the charge for social mobility—for fairer chances, for real freedom.
People keep telling me that it’s too hard. That it’s futile to push for fairness into the headwinds of an economic slow down, or that it will just take too long. And that I should find some politically convenient ‘quick wins’ instead. I’ve also encountered fierce resistance from those who do so well out of the status quo. But for liberals the only struggles worth having are the uphill ones. Allowing schools to move poorer children up the queue for admissions. Making universities open their doors to everyone. Making firms work harder to get women on their boards. Breaking open internships. All controversial. All difficult. Not easy, but right.
So I’m not backing down. I’m not slowing down. Because this will not be a liberal nation until every citizen can thrive and prosper, until birth is no longer destiny, until every child is free to rise.
This summer, we saw the consequences of a society in which some people feel they have no stake at all. Nobody could fail to be horrified by what we saw during the riots. These weren’t organised campaigns for change. They were outbursts of nihilism and greed. I’ll never forget the woman I met in Tottenham, who told me the clothes she stood in were all the possessions she had left in the world after her home was torched.
But in every city where trouble broke out, most people did the right thing. So many more people went out to clean up the streets than went out to trash them. In Manchester I met a café owner who boarded up her broken windows and started serving tea and coffee straight away to the people who were helping clear up. And here in Birmingham the community stood together in the face of disorder and tragedy. Or emergency services, our police and our courts all rose to the challenge.
But we have to ensure that the offenders become ex-offenders for good. hree out of four had previous convictions. So we have to push ahead with the Government’s rehabilitation revolution: Punishment that sticks, that changes behaviour. An end to the corrosive cycle of crime. And I want the criminal to look their victims in the eye to see the consequences of their actions, and to put it right. That’s why there will be community payback projects in every city affected. Why we are investing in drug recovery wings in our prisons. Tackling gang culture. Tougher community penalties. Effective justice. Restorative justice. Liberal justice.
But let me say something else: The rioters are not the face of Britain ’s young people. The vast majority of our young people are good, decent and doing the best they can. Don’t condemn all of them because of the actions of a few. You know what really struck me? How so many of those who did join in the riots seemed to have nothing to lose. It was about what they could get, here and now. Not what lies in front of them, tomorrow and in the years ahead. As if their own future had little value. Too many of these young people had simply fallen through the cracks. Not just this summer but many summers ago, when they lost touch with their own future. So often the people who have gone off the rails are the ones who were struggling years earlier, not least in making that critical leap from primary to secondary school. So today I am launching a new scheme to help the children who need it most. In the summer before they start secondary school. A two-week summer school helping them to catch up in Maths and English, and getting them ready for the challenges ahead. We know this is a time when too many children lose their way, so this is a £50m investment to help them along the right path.
And that is why we have found the money, even now, to invest in education. Protecting the schools budget. A two and a half billion pound Pupil Premium by the end of the parliament. More investment in early years education: 15 hours for all three and four year-olds. New provision for the poorest two-year-olds. All steps towards a society where nobody is ‘enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity’. Towards a liberal society. These are investments that will take years or even decades to pay off. By the time the two year-olds we help next year come to vote, I’ll be 60. So why are we doing it, when it costs so much and takes so long? Because investing early makes such a huge difference, especially for the poorest children: Not easy, but right.
So hold your heads up and look our critics squarely in the eye. This country would be in deep trouble today if we had not gone into Government last year. And Britain will be a fairer nation tomorrow because we are in Government today. Never apologise for the difficult things we are having to do. We are serving a great country at a time of great need. There are no shortcuts, but we won’t flinch. Our values are strong. Our instincts are good: Reason not prejudice. Compassion not greed. Hope not fear.
After the summer riots, message boards sprang up. They became known as ‘peace walls’. And on the peace wall in Peckham there was a note that simply read: Our home. Our children. Our future. Six words that say more than six hundred speeches. Our home. Our children. Our future.
Britain is our home. We will make it safe and strong. These are our children. We will tear down every barrier they face. And this is our future. We start building it today.