Eastleigh. Conference, I have never seen anything like it. Thousands and thousands of activists flooding in from every part of the UK. Young people arriving in their droves. Hitting the pavements, the phones, Facebook, Twitter, email – finding any and every way to drive our message home. I want to thank you all – you were just brilliant.
They said we’d never win it. The same critics who try to write us off time and time again. But, you know what? The naysayers can tear up those political obituaries. Liberal Democrats: you proved them wrong. And you proved what we have always known to be true: where we work, we win. There’s no great mystery to it. Mike Thornton, Keith House and their team didn’t just stop campaigning after the last General Election. They didn’t hang up their boots and say: ‘We got the seat, that’s it for five years’. They kept at it. Recruiting activists. Taking council seats. Building up their support. And when the time came, they were ready. Mike, Keith, everyone who helped: You ran an exemplary campaign; you have electrified this party – thank you very, very much.
The challenge now, Conference, is building on this momentum. As we approach the upcoming council elections in May. As we prepare for the General Election. We need to be clear on the lesson from Eastleigh: The odds were stacked against us. A fierce campaign, under a national spotlight, dogged by difficult headlines from day one. Extraordinary circumstances. Yet we still won. We beat the Tories. We squeezed Labour – don’t forget that bit. We won.
Why? Because, for the first time in a generation we could campaign on our record of local delivery and our record of national delivery too. Every leaflet dropped in the Eastleigh campaign combined both. And, when people took a long, hard look they liked what they saw. We didn’t win in Eastleigh in spite of being in power. We won in Eastleigh because we’re in power – locally and nationally. It’s important that everyone in this room knows that.
It’s three years since we took the decision to go into Government. I know some of you have had a quiet fear, ticking away at the back of your minds. The worry that the risk we took was too big. No, Liberal Democrats. It may have been a risk, but we took it for the right reasons: to steer Britain through a time of economic crisis; to govern in the national interest; to govern from the centre ground; to build a stronger economy, in a fairer society, enabling everyone in Britain to get on in life.
And that decision will pay off – for the country, and for us too. There is a myth that governing together, in coalition, diminishes the ability of the smaller party to beat the bigger party. The idea that, in Tory facing seats the Liberal Democrats will find it impossible to distinguish our record, our values, from theirs. But that myth has been utterly confounded. The opposite is true. The longer you stand side-by-side with your opponents, the easier your differences are to see. We don’t lose our identity by governing with the Conservatives. The comparison helps the British people understand who we are.
And we are the party that shares the country’s priorities: Fair taxes; better schools; jobs. The only party that will deliver a stronger economy and a fairer society, enabling every one to get on in life.
In the days after the by-election, even though we won, I was asked how I feel about our party no longer being a magnet for the protest vote. No longer the automatic ‘none-of-the-above’ choice. And my reply was this: the Liberal Democrats are not a party of protest, we are a party of change. A party that is for things, not simply against things. A successful political party cannot thrive just by picking up the votes that have been lost by its opponents. Our ambition is to reach out to the millions of people in this country who want a party that strikes the right balance between economic credibility and social fairness. We are not some kind of receptacle for people who don’t like the world – and don’t want to do anything about it. We grapple with the world. We strive to make it better. And the more people who see that, all the better too.
Conference, I don’t pretend it’s all sunny uplands from here. This journey we are on is not an easy one. As a party: from opposition to government. As a country: from austerity to prosperity. We will be tested more times along the way. And, throughout this journey, our focus will be the country’s focus. The economy. Britain’s economic recovery has proved more challenging than anyone imagined. The crash in 2008, deeper and more profound than we knew. Just two weeks ago, the uncertain outcome of the Italian election threatened to plunge Europe back into crisis. Suddenly we were reminded of the danger that looms when markets question the ability of governments to live within their means. Countries around the world face the same, hard truth: We must all pay the piper in the end. I want to make one thing clear: We will not flinch on the deficit. But to be unflinching is not to be unthinking. And the idea that the choice is between a cruel and unbending Plan A and a mythical plan B is simply not the case.
Balancing the books is a judgement, not a science. And our plan has always allowed room for manoeuvre. One of the most important things I have learnt in Government is this: in a fluid, fast-moving global economic environment, sticking to a plan requires government to be flexible, as well as resolute. Nimble, as well as determined. When economic circumstances around us deteriorated and UK growth forecasts suffered, voices on the right called for us to respond by cutting further and faster. But instead we took the pragmatic choice to extend the deficit reduction timetable. As tax receipts went down we let the automatic ebb and flow of government borrowing fill the gap. And it is simply not true – as our critics on the left pretend – that we are slashing and burning the state. By the end of this Parliament, public spending will still be 42% of GDP. That’s higher than at any time between 1995 and when the banks crashed, in 2008. And most importantly, reducing the deficit is essential, but as a means to an end. And that end is lasting, sustainable growth. Sound public finances are one piece of the jigsaw. But so are better skills, more apprenticeships, smarter regulation, a more competitive tax regime for business. All of which we are delivering.
And, yes, productive investment in our infrastructure too: energy, housing, transport. Creating jobs today and boosting the long-term strength of our economy: the extension of High Speed Rail; the new network of technology centres; the Green Investment Bank; Cross Rail – the biggest construction project in Europe. And, in an unprecedented break from the straitjacket of Treasury orthodoxy, an offer of £50bn worth of guarantees from central government to those people willing to invest in UK’s infrastructure and get construction going. No government has offered these kinds of guarantees, on this scale, ever before. And this year, Conference, we are spending more on capital than Labour spent, on average, between 1997 and 2010.
So let no one tell you that this Government isn’t straining every sinew to invest every available pound into UK infrastructure. We will and must do more to mobilise investment into our long-term infrastructure needs. I agree with that. Vince agrees with that. Danny agrees with that. But, as we all equally acknowledge, there are no cost-free, risk-free ways of finding such huge sums of money. Not at a time when Labour left the cupboard bare and we still have the second highest deficit in Europe, behind only Greece. Ours is a growth strategy guided by liberal pragmatism from a Coalition government anchored firmly in the centre ground. The deficit down by a quarter. Fixing our banks. A million jobs created in the private sector. Money back in people’s pockets. A stronger economy, a fairer society, enabling everyone to get on in life.
In the middle of the 20 Century, as Britain emerged from the ravages of war, its leaders were forced to think anew – just as we are now. The great liberal, Sir William Beveridge, established the modern welfare state, transforming this country forever. He said ‘Liberalism is a faith, not a formula’. And what he meant is that liberalism is a set of timeless principles, married to an unshakeable belief in human progress. That is why liberals never run from change. Our role remains the same today. In this Coalition Government, so much of the radical thinking on economic reform is liberal-led. Not just rebuilding the old economy. Not just repeating the same mistakes of the past. But building an economy that is resilient, sustainable, open, green. Ideas deliberated in this conference hall, now being administered by thousands of civil servants, in order to benefit millions of British citizens. The world’s first ever Green Investment Bank. The Business Bank; the bank levy; the Green Deal. Better schools and proper vocational learning. Greater shareholder democracy. Flexible working and shared parental leave. Tax cuts for working families, paid for by higher taxes on unearned wealth. We may be the smaller party, Conference, but we have all the biggest ideas.
And, remember: no one will know what we stand for unless we stand together. As our opponents argue among themselves and turn inwards it is even more important that we build on – rather than squander – the magnificent resolve and unity we have shown over the last three years. That unity is what our enemies most fear. That unity should make us proud.
Most importantly, liberals understand that economic renewal must be accompanied by social renewal. A stronger economy needs a fairer society. That is what this is about. Strong growth creates jobs and opportunities. If citizens are empowered and educated they are better able to grasp those opportunities. Their achievements, in turn, drive prosperity. Yet the Conservative and Labour governments of the past have, together, built a Britain characterised by intense concentrations of power. They allowed opportunity to be hoarded among elites. The untold story of the boom years is a story of lost potential. Previous governments placed unquestioning faith in London’s financial sector. And it led them to squander the talents and prospects of dozens of places, and millions of people. GDP may have been rising, but in some of our biggest cities, former industrial powerhouses like Nottingham and Birmingham, the private sector workforces were actually shrinking. One square mile may have been raking in astronomical profits. But we are a country of 100,000 square miles. And across the nation, communities suffered serious neglect.
And just as Labour and the Conservatives allowed our economy to become grossly unbalanced, they ignored deep social divides too. Despite the steps we have taken in Government, Britain remains a place where, for the vast majority of people, the life you are born into still determines the life you lead. It doesn't have to be like that. Yesterday I spoke to someone I've gotten to know over the last few years. A man called Kevin McLoughlin who owns a painting and decorating company in London. Kevin left school at 15. His dad was disabled. His mum was out of work. But he managed to get an apprenticeship. 40 years later and his business is thriving. He now gives the same opportunity to hundreds of youngsters. He told me his main motivation is simply to build a successful, profitable business. These young men and women are an asset to his company. But he also said, the reason he keeps doing it is he doesn't believe for one moment that British youngsters don't want to work - someone just needs to give them a chance. To be a liberal is to know that every man, woman and child is capable of remarkable things. That there is something extraordinary in every person. To be a liberal is to know that when we, as individuals, flourish, we, as a society, become greater than the sum of our parts.
And to be a liberal in government is to help every individual be the best they can be. A fairer society. That’s what the Pupil Premium is for. Billions of pounds to stop poor children falling behind. More free childcare. City Deals transferring economic powers from Whitehall to every corner of the UK. The biggest ever cash rise in the state pension; a generous new flat rate pension. And of course, raising the point at which people start paying income tax. So that millions of low earners pay none at all. And, as of April, millions of working people will be £600 better off. Liberal Democrat policies, delivered by Liberal Democrat ministers. Creating a stronger economy and a fairer society, enabling everyone to get on in life.
The Conservatives, on their own, will never deliver the fairer society – it’s just not who they are. Take the Mansion tax. Even now, when millions of families are feeling the pinch, they still refuse to ask people who live in multi-million pound homes to chip in a bit more. The Conservative party knows it needs to stay on the centre ground to have any chance of speaking to ordinary people’s concerns. At least the leadership seem to. But they just can’t manage it, no matter how hard they try. They’re like a kind of broken shopping trolley. Every time you try and push them straight ahead they veer off to the right hand side.
Did you notice the bizarre mixed messages from the Conservative party after Eastleigh? An article in one Sunday newspaper, promising: no lurch to the right. Others splashed with the promise to pull the UK out of the European Convention on Human Rights. Something only one other European country has done: Belarus. The Conservatives would actively take away rights enjoyed by British citizens just to appease their backbenchers. Yesterday Theresa May made a speech arguing the option of leaving the Convention should remain ‘on the table’. Well, I tell you, it won’t be on the Cabinet Table so long as I’m sitting round it. Conference, make no mistake, no matter what the issue: Safeguarding the NHS, creating green jobs, stopping profit-making in schools, preventing a return to two tier O Levels, the Liberal Democrats will keep the Coalition firmly anchored in the centre ground.
What’s the only thing as unlikely as the Tories delivering a fairer society? Labour delivering a stronger economy. Let’s recap. First they destroy the economy. They spend all the money. They leave us with nothing. Then they oppose every single saving the Coalition has been forced to make with not a single suggestion for how to raise money instead. Then they finally do come up with an idea. And it’s brilliant. But it’s the Mansion Tax – and we came up with it first. Labour are embracing opposition in the worst possible way. All they are interested in is striking poses and playing parliamentary games. They try to lecture us about taxing the rich. Even though taxes on the richest are now higher than they were for every year under thirteen years of Labour. They conspired with Tory rebels to scupper Lords Reform, even though it was in their manifesto. By now I expected a re-energised Labour party, re-focused. The whole point of opposition parties is that they come up with ideas. But they haven’t. Under Ed Miliband and Ed Balls, Labour remain a blank page in British politics. These people were in the government that crashed the economy before. They’ve given us no apology. No solutions. No plans. No sign that they even understand what they did. The truth is, left to their own devices, they’d do it again. And, I’m sorry, but you do not stand tall for one nation when you still bow to the union barons.
You can’t trust Labour to build a strong economy. You can’t trust the Tories to build a fair society. Only the Liberal Democrats can deliver a stronger economy and a fairer society, enabling everyone to get on in life. Get used to those words, Conference. Get used to saying them. That’s the message I need you to deliver across the country. I need you to explain it to people each and every day, from now, for the next two years and beyond. Tell them that only the Liberal Democrats have the values and ideas to build a better future. Tell them that only we can deliver the stronger economy and fairer society Britain needs.
Conference, we are on the eve of an important anniversary: It is ten years since the invasion of Iraq. Ten years since we opposed that war. Standing on our own within Parliament but with the people, outside of it. As I look back I am reminded of all of the times that the Liberal Democrats have led, rather than followed. Whether under Paddy Ashdown, as early converts in the fight against climate change. Whether as a lone voice warning against corporate recklessness and greed. Whether as a pioneer for equal rights, irrespective of colour, gender and creed. Regardless of whether you are old or young; rich or poor; gay or straight. Those memories are proud memories. But there’s a big difference between now and then. In the past we may have been right – but we couldn’t do anything about it. Now we can. Think of equal marriage. Not just an idea in this hall, but the law of the land because of us.
We know that change is not always possible overnight. We know that reform is always met with anger by those who cling to the status quo. But we also know that, if you have the argument on your side. If you have the courage of your convictions, change is only a matter of time. Liberal Democrats, I have spent nearly three years asking you to hold firm. Three years urging you to remain steady under fire. And you have.
But today, Liberal Democrats, I have a different message for you: Win. Get back out there. Tell our side of the story. And we will win again. On the door step, in town halls, in government. Keep fighting for what we believe in. Keep winning. Building a stronger economy, a fairer society, enabling everyone to get on in life.