NICK CLEGG'S SPRING CONFERENCE 2008 LEADER'S SPEECH
My grandmother was a Russian exile; she fled the Russian revolution as a child, escaping through Europe and finally settling here in Britain. My mother spent part of her childhood in a Japanese prisoner of war camp in Indonesia. My mother and my grandmother's lives were torn and reshaped by the great wars and upheavals of the twentieth century. And they found a home in Britain because ours is a nation of tolerance, of freedom, and of compassion. And what they taught me the extraordinary, precious value of those beliefs. They understood that beliefs matter, they make all the difference between war and peace. Beliefs shape our world, for better and for worse.
My family taught me never to give up on problems, and no matter what the odds or opposition, always to seek to do what’s right. And there are problems in Britain today, too many: Families stuck in grinding poverty, liberty taken and abused by government officials, climate change starting to tighten its deathly grip. But they aren’t problems with the British people, they’re problems faced by the British people. We are not the problem, it’s the system that’s the problem.
That’s what gives me hope, because there is nothing we cannot change. Our party is growing, we're going from strength to strength: more supporters, more members, more MPs. It's not that long ago that if 13 MPs wanted to rebel, we'd have had to borrow some from the other parties.
You want to know the great political story of our generation? It isn’t New Labour. It isn’t New Conservatives. Those are just the dying sparks of a fire that’s running out of fuel. No, the great political story of our time is the story of the vast and growing army of people who look at the two main parties and say “no thanks.” People who, like me, like you, want something different. In 1951, only 2% of voters chose someone other than Labour or the Tories; at the last general election, it was 32%.
A gimmick here, or a lucky break there may boost Labour or Conservative poll ratings for a few weeks or months, but it cannot, and will not reverse the trend. Who seriously believes that the British people, offered so much choice in every aspect of our daily lives, will ever again settle for a two-party system? If you have two parties, you only ever have two ideas - on a good day. Most of the time they can’t even rustle up a single good idea between them. No wonder people are tired of politics, of a system that swings like a pendulum between two establishment parties, of the same old politicians, the same old fake choices, the same old feeling that nothing ever changes.
But this isn’t a story of indifference. People do care about issues: climate change, poverty, their local school or hospital. There are marches and campaigns and petitions launched every day of the week. People care, they just don’t care about politicians. So this is the end of the line for politics-as-usual.
If we want a political system that works for the future, we need to start again, from scratch. I am not just talking about electoral reform; a change in our voting system is a vital part of what we need, but it isn’t enough.
First, let’s clean up politics; scandals over pay and expenses have shattered confidence. Thousands of voters have seen their MP exposed for corruption – and been told there’s nothing they can do about it. I want a Derek Conway Clause, so if an MP is suspended for serious misconduct there is an automatic recall ballot so people can call for a by-election. If your MP lets you down, you should have the power to fire them.
Second, let’s give people the say they deserve. I hold town hall meetings up and down the country every couple of weeks – where I answer any question, on any topic, and anyone can come along. I say to Gordon Brown and David Cameron: do the same. Today I'm writing to invite them to join me at any one of the town hall meetings coming up - not as a media stunt, but a direct conversation with people – no spin, no hand-picked audiences, no planted questions.
Our plans for the NHS, approved this weekend, would give every citizen an even more direct say. The power to run their local health service, by standing for election to their local health board, is real democracy in action. Giving local people the chance to run services which really matter to them, and being held accountable at the ballot box by their own communities. It's our health service - it's time to put it back in our hands.
Third, let’s design a new political system for the 21st century. It shouldn’t be hammered out in secret, smoke-filled rooms, by the powers that be. I want a citizens’ jury of 100 people to sit in a Constitutional Convention with all the political parties, churches, civil society groups and more - to look across the board, and redesign the way Britain is governed. I wrote to David Cameron and Gordon Brown proposing such a Convention just after Christmas; their replies were laughable: Dave suggested he and I gang up on Gordon, Gordon sent me six pages of legalistic waffle (Willie Goodhart, Anthony Lester and the rest of our top legal experts are still locked in a Committee room trying to decipher it).
You see, only the Liberal Democrats will ever champion the sort of change we need. Only we can transform the system, because we aren’t part of it. I joined the Liberal Democrats because we’re independent. When I was a teenager, Labour were in the pockets of the trade unions, Conservatives in the pockets of big business. What drew me to the Liberal Democrats was that we weren’t in anyone’s pocket. It’s still the same.
The establishment parties will manipulate the system to get the power they want, but they’ll never change it - they like having power and privilege sewn up between a few chums in the Westminster bubble. That’s why they won’t do what’s needed and get the money out of politics. They don’t see we’re heading for the skids: if we don’t act, Britain will end up like America, where political influence is all about cash. That's why I want a universal £25,000 cap on donations, a real cap on spending, and yes, an end to big union donations, and an end to offshore finance from Belize. Transparency, openness, a new constitutional settlement, and an end to big money politics: that’s what Britain needs and we will get it done.
I’m not shy about doing whatever it takes. If it means walking out of Parliament when the big parties collude against us, I say: fine. If it means boycotting banquets that celebrate our relationship with dodgy regimes, like Vince Cable did, or speaking up to expose corruption like Chris Davies did, I say: so be it. If it means risking court, and refusing to sign up for an Identity Card, I say: bring it on. And you can expect more - much more - of that from me. It’s a high-risk strategy, and I warn you, we can only make it work if we are united and disciplined in the face of attacks from the establishment parties and the establishment media.
If we are not the radical force in British politics, who will be? Not Gordon Brown. Until last summer, we all thought we knew what Gordon Brown was all about: we knew he’d signed the cheques for Iraq, we knew he had an arrogant, centralising obsession with controlling everything, and a steely determination to get his hands on the keys to Downing Street, but at least people thought he would be able to manage things with a little competence. Then look what happened: a bottled election, Northern Rock, party funding scandals, and data losses. This government had the audacity to advise every family in Britain to get a paper shredder, to protect them from identity fraud, and then proceeded to lose more of our personal data than any government in the history of the world.
Worse, remember last autumn, after the election-that-never-was? Alistair Darling stole a policy from the Tories and announced an inheritance tax cut that will help only the richest 6% of people. Do you know where they found the money? If the reports are true, they scrapped a plan they'd been developing all summer - a plan to cut child poverty. The future of hundreds of thousands of children sold down the river because the Labour party sold its soul and became the second Conservative party: money taken from the poorest kids and given to the richest adults, no questions asked. Gutless, heartless, and incompetent.
Gordon Cameron. David Brown. What's the difference any more?
I’ve actually found out why it’s going so wrong for Gordon. I’ve got my hands on a secret memo, drafted by Ed Miliband, redrafted by Ed Balls, leaked by Charlie Whelan. Gordon Brown’s masterplan:
Number one: get into Downing Street.
Number two: don’t leave.
Number three: errr, that's it.
No vision, no agenda, no hope.
The Conservatives are just the same: they’re in favour of winning, they’re against losing, and that’s it. David Cameron has taken a conscious, strategic decision not to have any policies. They have commissions, and papers, and ideas, and possibilities, but not one concrete promise. This is sham politics from a party bereft of belief, that will say anything to get elected – and Britain deserves more. You know, their proposals for tax breaks for marriage are so ill-thought out, they would even give cash to a man who’s ditched his stay-at-home-wife and shacked up with his secretary.
Think about the alternatives to Alistair Darling. In the yellow corner, Vince Cable, former chief economist at Shell, and in the blue corner, George Osborne, former Tory research assistant. On tax, Vince Cable has carefully costed plans for a fairer, greener Britain, and George Osborne has a review by Lord Howe, famously described as a dead sheep. On Northern Rock, Vince Cable had a sensible plan for temporary national ownership, and George Osborne has had more positions than the Kama Sutra. On every issue, Vince is streets ahead, the Liberal Democrats are streets ahead of the Conservatives.
But have you heard the latest wheeze from the Tories? It's the extraordinary claim that David Cameron wants to mimic Barack Obama and be “anti-establishment”. That’s like Margaret Thatcher claiming to be the champion of the unions, or Boris Johnson giving a master-class in the art of diplomacy - this is a man who's still not welcome in the great city of Liverpool, or Portsmouth, or Papua New Guinea, and we must keep him out of City Hall too.
Ken Livingstone has let London down and the only man fit to replace him is Brian Paddick, an outstanding candidate who will transform London. It's not just in London where we're facing elections in May; there are three thousand seats to be won, so let's campaign as we've never campaigned before, win more votes and more seats so even more British people can have the opportunity of a Liberal Democrat council.
The day before I was elected leader, Mr Cameron suggested we join them, he talked about a “progressive alliance”. This talk of alliances comes up a lot, doesn’t it? Everyone wants to be in our gang. So I want to make something very clear today. Will I ever join a Conservative government? No. Will I ever join a Labour government? No. I will never allow the Liberal Democrats to be a mere annex to another party's agenda.
But am I interested in building a new type of government? Yes. Based on pluralism instead of one party rule? Yes. A new system, that empowers people not parties? Yes. We want a new, more liberal Britain, and the Liberal Democrats will be the gathering point for everyone who wants that liberal Britain too – no matter their background, no matter their party, so for anyone who shares our ambitions I have two words: join us.
What will it look like, this new Britain? First the great monoliths of centrally-run bureaucracies must be opened up – and run for the sake of the people, the patients, the pupils. These days individuals are powerless in the face of the rules and regulations that run everything, every sensible request is met with a mindless “Computer Says No”. Who hasn’t got stuck in the nightmarish world of an automatic phone service they laughably call a “helpline”? The lift music. The menus. The mechanical voice that tells you “your call is important to us”.
It’s frustrating when you’re trying to sort out your gas bill, but what if that helpline’s your only route to getting money for food, heating, clothes for your kids? That’s what happened to Hayley Sandford, a young single mum from Camborne, in Cornwall. She didn’t want to be stuck on benefits, so she took a job over the summer; she and her friend Donna spent six weeks doing face-painting for kids, but the season ended, the crowds went home, and the job stopped. Hayley’s tax credits had been mistakenly stopped too, and now she had no wages either.
Just imagine: No money, and a young son to feed. She was desperate, tipped into financial chaos because the system couldn’t keep up, because bureaucrats were interested only in forms and rules, they couldn’t see the human tragedy emerging in front of them. In the end, Hayley was lucky: her MP, Julia Goldsworthy, stepped in and helped sort out the chaos. But it shouldn’t have to be like this, we can’t all rely on Julia. We want services that are human-sized, personal in nature, and designed for real people. We don’t want these services handed down by the faceless state.
Gordon Brown is obsessed with building bigger and bigger database systems. I sometimes wonder if it’s a mid-life crisis thing: you know, instead of buying a Porsche or trying to climb Everest. It’s an international game of “mine’s bigger than yours”. They’re actually proud of the fact Britain has more innocent people’s DNA on file than any other country in the world, proud that Britain is leading the world in fingerprinting children at school, proud that the Identity Card database will be the biggest and most complex the world has ever seen. They shouldn’t be proud, they should be ashamed. Our civil liberties are a hard-won inheritance from our forefathers who fought and died for our freedom, and our party will defend them to the end.
It’s a funny thing, freedom: it ought to belong to everyone, in equal measure, but in Britain today, some people are still freer than others. Pensioners spending a whole winter in the bedroom, because it’s the only room they can afford to heat: that isn’t freedom. Children shunted from one damp, temporary flat to another, sharing a bed with their parents because there’s no space for a room of their own: that isn’t freedom. Teenagers trapped in a cycle of drink and drugs and crime, because they have never known anything different: that isn’t freedom.
It doesn’t have to be like this. A better Britain would put education and opportunity at its very heart so no child, no parent, is ever trapped in poverty. These days, a clever, but poor child, will be overtaken at school by a less clever, but wealthier child by the age of six - just two thousand days old, and already let down by the system. We cannot let this go on.
I met a remarkable young man a couple of months ago in Southwark. Ashley had the kind of drive and charisma that fills you with hope – and the kind of childhood that makes you want to weep, passed about from one set of foster parents to another. These days, the government calls kids in care “looked-after children”; too often, “looked-after” is just a painful euphemism for a childhood on the scrap heap. You know how many looked-after children go to university? Five percent.
But Ashley defied the system, defied the statistics, and got into Cambridge. By sheer force of personality, and with the help of a good school, he has conquered circumstance - but it shouldn’t be so hard. The system should pave the way for people like Ashley, not set up roadblocks. That’s why our idea for a Pupil Premium is so important, to get investment in education for the poorest children up to the levels of private schools. And I will find the £2.5 billion it will cost.
I want to build an education system where the people who need the most help get the most help, where schools that take on children who are harder to teach get extra cash to fund catch up classes, Saturday school, one-to-one tuition, whatever it takes. I’ve seen it work: in the Netherlands, classes in deprived areas are half the size of classes in more affluent areas, and as a result everyone gets a good education, no matter what their background. We can have that here. We can have a better education system, and through it a better Britain.
But, inequality today isn’t just about what happens at school. The crisis reaches so deep that where you are born, and who your parents are, affects everything about how your life will pan out. It even affects how long that life will be. Some day, if you’re in London, get on the tube at Westminster, on the Jubilee line. Take an eastbound train towards the Docklands. Every station you pass, every time the train stops, every time the doors open and close, for every stop you travel east, life expectancy drops by a year.
It’s the same across Britain. In Sheffield, a child born in the poorest neighbourhood will live 14 years less than a child born just a few miles away. The NHS is a great national institution, but it isn’t good enough. It isn’t good enough when the very number of days you will spend on this planet are determined by the place and circumstances of your birth. So let us build a new NHS – a People’s NHS.
That’s why this week we’ve committed ourselves to a patient guarantee: treatment within a specified waiting time, or we’ll pay for you to go private. That’s the way it works in Denmark – not to undermine the public health system, but to guarantee patients’ rights. And patients should have more control over their care – with budgets in their own hands to treat long term and chronic conditions.
Nowhere is this more important than in mental health. People are waiting for literally years for help. In Plymouth you’ll be stranded for three and a half years before you even get to see a therapist. So people languish on incapacity benefit, and stuff themselves with pills that might not even work, and sometimes, help never comes.
Like for Petra Blanksby. A childhood of sexual abuse, beatings from her mother, repeatedly locked with her twin sister in a cupboard with the dogs. In a last desperate cry for help, she set fire to her own mattress. Instead of receiving help, she was convicted of arson and sent to prison where she tied a ligature around her neck and hanged herself. She was 19. What makes the tragedy even more agonizing is that her twin sister, locked as a child in the same cupboard, but given help and therapy in her teens, is OK. That’s how it should be. People should get a second, a third, a fourth chance at life – however many chances it takes.
Take our criminal justice system. It doesn’t have to be just a dustbin for people who’ve been failed by everyone else. It should be a place where people and communities come together to tackle crime and deal with problems, where criminals are punished, of course, but also steered away from crime. I visited a great drugs court in West London last year run by a Judge called Justin Philips. He wants the drug addicts he sees to really feel they’ve achieved something when they’re staying away from drugs and crime. He cajoles, encourages, admonishes, and praises the offenders as if they were from his own family, and it makes such a difference.
I met a young man called Aaron. His story was like that of almost every drug addict: Stealing to buy drugs, failed attempts at rehab, a never-ending cycle of crime, punishment, cold turkey, falling off the wagon. And then he was sent to Judge Justin, who – quite literally – held his hand through the huge task of getting clean, and keeping clean. Aaron told me – “Justin was the first person I ever met, my whole life, who cared about what happened to me.” It makes a difference when you treat a human being like a human being. And it can be this way.
We don’t have to have to have tens of thousands of young people hooked on drugs, we don’t have to have women selling themselves on the streets to fund their desperate need for a hit, and we can care for people as we punish them, not only for their sake but to make British communities safer too. Change the system, and we can change Britain. Education, health and crime: the top three concerns of the British people, they have been for decades.
But I want us to get the environment up there too. Our planet is sick, and we will only heal it if people – if millions of people – demand action. Climate scientists trade all sorts of terrifying numbers and statistics: degrees of warming, metres rise in sea levels, numbers of people who’ll be driven from their homes, but there’s one number that worries me most: Just one in fourteen people thinks the environment is a big problem.
Everyone in this room knows the Liberal Democrats have the best policies on tackling climate change, but I am not content to sit around, burnishing our policy credentials so that, some time in the future – if the apocalypse comes – we can say “I told you so”. We’ve got to make concern about the environment a mass movement, now. We must provide an optimistic, empowering case for action to tackle climate change; you can't hector people, they must be motivated and inspired, especially when they’re already struggling to meet their council tax bills, the gas, the electric, and childcare. When you’re struggling to keep your head above water, buying a wormery or going organic seems like a luxury for someone else.
We all need to feel like the system is on our side. There are too many rules, too many blockages, too many obstacles to making life greener. It's even difficult to make small steps: it actually took me a year – a whole year – to get the Labour council in Sheffield to put a recycling bin in the playground of a primary school in my constituency. Now, I’m an MP, it’s my job to campaign for this sort of thing sometimes, but how many parents are there, across the country, who had the same idea – "let’s get a recycling bin at school" – and gave up?
By changing the system, to support people who want to do their bit, we can get business, government and people to act together. If we all begin today, we can still save the planet, we can harness environmental leadership to drive our economy too. We will need it, if we’re to withstand the global downturn that’s on the doorstep. Britain is in no fit state to endure the impact of a recession in the US; our government has created a system propped up on cheap credit. We’ve been building castles on the sand. And the tide is coming in. Poor Alistair Darling has become the chief mourner at his own political funeral.
But outside Westminster, we all know who will suffer first, and most. It isn’t the hedge fund managers. It isn’t the wealthy tax exiles. It’s ordinary families, already struggling with rising council tax, soaring gas and electricity bills, and the merciless upwards creep of the price of food. Why is it that those ordinary families still pay more tax than the richest people in Britain today? What kind of messed-up system is that?
If we want a better Britain, with opportunity for everyone, we’ve got to have fair taxes. Cutting income tax by 4p in the pound is a great start, but we must never stop thinking about how we make taxes fairer, greener and, if possible, lower. Not loopholes for people with clever tax accountants and offshore trusts, but lifting the burden on ordinary families. We mustn’t be a party that taxes for the sake of it; I have no interest in taxing people to “send a message”.
Taxes should be fair, and they should be green. They should raise the money we need and not a penny more. So if, before the General Election, we find we can deliver our objectives with money to spare, we shouldn’t look for new ways to spend it, we should look for new ways to hand it back, especially to those who need it most.
We have called for tax rises in the past, when investment in our public services was intolerably low; we were right to do so. But after a decade of unprecedented increases in spending the problem now is not “how much” – it’s “how”. We need to think radically about how we improve our public services, change funding systems so there’s fair access for everyone, and deliver services efficiently, instead of wasting money on massive centralised systems that do more harm than good. And devolve control to councils, communities, families, parents, patients and pupils.
Change will upset some people, I know. Change always does. There are vested interests at play, in the establishment parties, in the big central bureaucracies that run things in Britain today. Someone’s got to take on the vested interests.
Someone’s got to challenge the established order of things. And it’s got to be us, it can only be us. I don’t just mean vested interests determining government policy here at home. Our whole international political system – and Britain’s role within it - is twisted and warped by powerful people determined to promote their own interests.
What better example is there than Iraq? If there is one thing this illegal war has taught us, it is this: that when others choose to ride their tanks over the top of international law, our government must not roll over or join in. Iraq was Bush’s war – and supporting it is Labour’s greatest shame. Our whole political establishment is in thrall to the might of the Pentagon and the White House; only the Liberal Democrats say no. Britain must embrace our relationship with other allies – especially Europe: that's why I will always be a passionate promoter of the European Union and Britain's place at its heart.
But the Bush administration is coming to an end, at last. We have a real chance now to break with the past, set priorities here in Britain, not in the Pentagon. No more nods and winks to the abuse of human rights. No more secretive deals to host American missile systems on British soil. No more neo-con wars. Now is the time for change.
Of course there will be times when military action is necessary. We supported, and continue to support, the intervention in Afghanistan – and we must do more to make it a success. But Britain’s response to threats must always be ethical, measured and legal. Under Labour, quite simply, it isn’t any of those things. This is a government which identifies twenty 'major countries of concern' for human rights abuses, then exports record levels of arms to nineteen of them. This is a government which cancels an investigation into corrupt arms sales to Saudi, then rolls out the red carpet for a state visit from its king. This is a Prime Minister who refuses to speak up on human rights abuses in China, then picks up his reward in the form of special trade deals.
For too long, vested interests have triumphed over doing what’s right and it’s got to stop. Sometimes it makes you feel so helpless, and yes, angry too, when there’s so much you want to change. I bet you’ve all felt like that once in a while: like there’s a mountain to climb, and it’s just too much to do alone. The cynicism of so much public debate doesn’t help; a cynicism that mocks anyone with the nerve to speak with sincerity about what they believe, a cynicism that’s given up believing in hope.
But I am not embarrassed by sincerity. I am not ashamed of believing in things. I want to believe in a better Britain. Every one of us is here today because we believe in a better Britain. It’s time for a party that isn’t cowed by the system, or afraid to challenge it, because the chance for change is there – within our reach - the chance to prise open, once and for all, the rotten old system, and build something new. The chance is there, it’s ours to take.
So let’s seize it.
Sunday, March 09, 2008
For those who find that one line paragraphs are a bit much, I have taken the transcript from the Lib Dem website and turned it into the following, for ease of reading. Nothing has been changed about the content, but I have attempted to make it sit a little more naturally as printed word.