21 September 2006
This has been my first autumn conference as Liberal Democrat leader.
And I have enjoyed it – particularly since Tuesday lunchtime.
But while I have enjoyed my first, others will be hoping to enjoy their last.
Labour is preparing to pick a new leader.
You may have read that the Prime Minister is planning a farewell tour for a grateful nation.
The Chris Evans show is on the list.
So is Blue Peter – he’ll be wanting a free badge out of that.
And then there are to be Songs of Praise.
Details are top secret.
But in the best new Labour tradition, they have been leaked.
And this time, I have received a copy.
The hymns are definitely fit for purpose.
To start with, a hymn about new Labour’s current situation:
Oh Hear us when we cry to thee, For Those in Peril on the Sea.
Then, to lift the spirits of the party faithful:
Oh, What a Friend we have in Gordon.
And finally, before the curtain falls, repentance:
Dear Lord and Father of Mankind, Forgive our Foolish Ways.
Liberal Democrats, we are unique among the major British parties in the way our conference works.
The decisions you made this week mattered.
The debates we’ve had have meant something.
We have demonstrated our belief in liberalism, our commitment to democracy, and our unity of purpose.
Next week its Labour’s turn.
You won’t see any liberalism from them.
There won’t be any democracy.
And there won’t be votes that matter.
Half of them want Blair out.
And the other half don’t want Brown in.
After that it’s the Conservatives’ turn.
See if you can find a policy.
Just one will do.
The Tories are determined to avoid policy decisions at all costs.
They’ve chosen to adopt the oak tree as their new party logo.
For a policy-free party, that seems an entirely appropriate symbol.
It can take an oak tree fifty years to bear any fruit.
There is a serious point here.
Political debate in this country is in danger of losing sight of what matters.
It is in danger of losing its substance.
In the last few weeks Labour has been tearing itself apart.
The Conservatives are concentrating on image and little else.
Despite all the challenges our country is facing, neither of them has anything to say on the issues that matter.
But this week we Liberal Democrats have shown what politics ought to be about.
The issues that matter to people – public services, the environment, crime, taxation – a fairer and more peaceful world.
This country needs a party of principle.
A party that is confident and consistent.
A party that is prepared say this is what we stand for, and this is what we will do.
A party of policy, not of symbolism.
A party of substance, not of spin.
This week we have unveiled the most progressive plan for tax reform this country has seen in decades.
It provides the British people with the politics of substance.
This is about taking the tough decisions that really make a difference to people’s lives.
Taxation is at the heart of good government.
And if a political party cannot or will not tell you how it will tax, then it does not deserve a single vote.
Mr Brown taxes by stealth, never willing to tell us during an election campaign what he will do after the votes are counted.
Nor will David Cameron talk about how much he will tax or how much he will spend.
All he says is that he will “share the proceeds of growth”
That’s a slogan, not a policy.
We Liberal Democrats are different.
Here is exactly what we’ll do.
We will cut national income tax for 28 million working people.
We’ll abolish the 10 pence starting rate.
We’ll cut the basic rate from 22 pence to 20.
We’ll raise the top rate threshold from £38,000 to £50,000
We’ll take over two million of our lowest earners out of income tax altogether.
More than two million people.
Money back in the pockets of the poorest working families.
We will reward ambition and aspiration – not penalise effort.
Let me tell you how we will pay for it.
Not by higher taxes.
We will not raise the overall level of taxation.
But we will reform the tax system so that it is fairer, simpler and greener.
Under our plans, some will pay more.
We are straightforward about this.
The very wealthy will lose their generous pension tax subsidies.
Tax breaks on capital gains will be removed.
Those who can afford to make a greater contribution should do so.
And we will raise environmental taxes too.
All of us should pay tax on the pollution we cause.
Yes – It means taxing aviation properly.
Yes – It means fuel duty going up with inflation.
And yes – It means paying more for the cars that pollute the most.
If we are serious about the environment, only action will suffice.
The truth is, we still have a chance to affect the course of climate change.
But in ten years it may be too late.
Climate change is the greatest moral and practical challenge we face.
We must act.
Not in the future – not just when new technology becomes available – but now.
Our tax reforms are not about posturing on the environment.
We’ve seen enough of that over the last year.
This is about taking the decisions that will help us live up to our responsibilities – at home and abroad.
We are the only party prepared to take those decisions necessary to create a greener Britain.
And necessary to create a fairer Britain.
Income tax cuts for hard working people.
The polluter paying the price.
Taxing wealth, not work.
Now this is the politics of substance.
It’s fairness in action.
It’s environmentalism in action.
It’s liberalism in action.
And this country has never been in more need of our liberal values.
Like many of you I was optimistic in 1997.
Not just because 18 years of Conservative rule were over.
But because there was a feeling of hope and a promise of change.
A promise of inclusive politics where people and ideas mattered.
The opportunity to renew Britain.
To restore public services.
To bring back trust and faith in government.
To create a new progressive politics.
But Labour has squandered that opportunity.
After three election victories, Labour has failed.
The gap between rich and poor is wider than at any point under Margaret Thatcher.
We have higher taxes, but little improvement in public services.
Millions of pensioners remain consigned to poverty: two thirds of them women.
Hard-working families are crippled by debt.
Carbon emissions are rising.
And now hospital wards are closing, doctors and nurses are losing their jobs.
This is the domestic legacy of the Blair-Brown Government.
And Labour has put our civil liberties under threat.
Labour believes that terrorism should be tackled by taking away personal freedoms.
Let me be very clear – Terrorism is a threat to everything that liberals stand for – individual freedom, democracy, and the rule of law.
We support this government when it provides the police and security services with powers and resources when these are truly justified.
It was, after all, the Liberal Democrats who won the argument for the creation of the new criminal offence of acts preparatory to terrorism.
But a strong and safe society can only be created if communities work together to tackle these threats.
Excessive powers – and the excessive use of powers – alienate the very communities we need on our side.
Terrorism thrives where civil liberties are denied.
That is why Liberal Democrats, under my leadership, will fight to maintain the principles of the Human Rights Act.
That is why Liberal Democrats, under my leadership, will fight for the independence of judges and the rule of law.
That is why Liberal Democrats, under my leadership, will fight against any acceptance of torture.
And if the proposal comes back – and it will – we will fight to ensure that the government cannot imprison people for ninety days without trial or charge.
When tackling terrorism, we must recognise that how we act abroad is as important as how we act at home.
We should all be proud of the contribution the United Kingdom has made to democracy, to the values of tolerance and diversity, to the spread of the rule of law.
But in a few short years, Britain’s reputation has been tarnished.
In foreign policy, the Prime Minister has elevated belief over evidence, conviction over judgement, and instinct over understanding.
Put quite simply, he has presided over a foreign policy which is neither ethical nor effective.
Week after week in Parliament, the Prime Minister has had to lead tributes to the members of the armed forces who have been killed in action.
Since Parliament last sat in July, another 29 have died.
We must never forget the price that we ask the men and women of our armed forces to pay.
In Iraq we are approaching a state of civil war.
Hundreds dying every week.
Terrorism taking root.
And all the while, Guantanamo Bay stands as a shameful affront to justice and the rule of law.
Secret prisons, rendition, the suspicion of torture.
How can those who operate outside the rule of law argue credibly for its observance in Iraq?
We Liberal Democrats will not shrink from our responsibility to challenge the government for the consequences of its decisions.
Security is not being gained, it is being lost.
Terrorism is not being defeated, it is being invigorated.
Freedom is not being spread, it is being undermined.
On the Middle East lets us be clear.
We do not underestimate the difficulties for Israel – in dealing with Hezbollah or a government in the Palestinian territories led by Hamas.
Hamas must recognise the state of Israel.
It must renounce violence.
And it must accept existing peace accords.
These remain the necessary conditions for the development of long term peace.
But there will be no peace in the Middle East while the Palestinians are subject to daily humiliation, settlements are expanded on the West Bank and the Palestinian people have no viable homeland they can call their own.
As long as this continues, Israel’s legal and moral right to live in peace behind secure and recognized borders will be undermined.
And what, more recently, did Lebanon teach us?
Hezbollah’s actions in kidnapping two Israeli soldiers were an outrage.
So too was their shelling of innocent civilians in Israel.
But the disproportionate response – the systematic destruction of roads, houses and bridges, the death and uprooting of so many innocent citizens – all of this has served to strengthen Hezbollah, not weaken it.
We Liberal Democrats led the call for an immediate and unconditional ceasefire.
But the Prime Minister was silent.
Yet again, Blair’s Britain was out of step with everyone but the Bush administration.
But our country’s reputation can be recovered.
It can be recovered by a British government that works through international institutions and is unflinching in its support for the rule of law.
I hope that at last our government recognises the depth of the crisis in Darfur.
Hundreds of thousands dead – millions displaced – desperate for aid and in fear for their lives.
You remember, in Rwanda the world looked the other way.
It must not do so again.
Britain must not do so again.
And now Mr Cameron expresses his reservations about Britain’s foreign policy.
Well I say to that – Where were you?
Where were you when what was needed was not reservation but votes?
I’ll tell you where you were.
You, Mr Cameron, were in the government lobby backing military action against Iraq.
You should apologise for supporting that war.
And while you’re at it, Mr Cameron, you should apologise for the last Tory manifesto, which you wrote – one of the most reactionary, unpleasant, right-wing manifestos of modern times.
But now, when it comes to policy, Cameron’s Tories are a substance free zone.
Their idea of political principle is to say, tell us what you don’t like and we’ll abandon it.
They have learned all the wrong lessons from Mr Blair – the spin, the photo opportunity, the endless sound bites signifying nothing.
Political parties shouldn’t be glorified advertising agencies.
It’s all very well for Mr Cameron to say he is a liberal now – but real liberalism means leading public opinion not following it.
The British public is entitled to the politics of substance, not the politics of spin.
That is why the British people are voting for Liberal Democrats in ever greater numbers.
Take this year.
The by-election in Gordon Brown’s back yard in Dunfermline returned the Liberal Democrat Willie Rennie as Member of Parliament, boosting our number of MPs to an all time high.
And in one of the safest Tory seats, Bromley and Chislehurst, Ben Abbotts reduced their massive majority to just 633 votes.
So much for David Cameron’s appeal outside Westminster.
The British people will vote for us in greater numbers still.
But only if we show that we practice the politics of substance, just as we did in that great tax debate on Tuesday.
And only if we show that we are the party of opportunity.
That freedom, fairness and a commitment to the environment are at the very heart of everything we say – and everything we do.
I joined the party as a young man at Glasgow University.
My generation – those of us now entering what I like to call?youthful middle age – was beginning to battle the injustices of the twentieth century – racism, sexism and homophobia.
That is why, when I was elected leader of the party, I made it clear to you that I would not be content until we had ensured that our party is more representative – that we have more candidates drawn from the ranks of women, the disabled and black and ethnic minorities.
That is why we have set up our new diversity fund.
We will be using it to fight target seats where such candidates are chosen.
We already have £200,000 pledged for that purpose.
This is clear signal of our serious ambition to make our party more representative.
But this is just the start.
Over the next few months there will be further initiatives – more money and more action.
But while we reform our own party we must never forget that inequality, unfairness and lack of opportunity are a blight on our society.
I was born in a tenement in Glasgow.
My parents worked hard to provide me with the opportunities that they never had.
My father wanted to be a doctor, but couldn’t afford to go to university.
So they saw to it that I got the chances they did not.
But opportunity should not be an accident of birth.
It must be open to everyone in Britain.
That is why I have established a commission, chaired by Liz Barker, to look at ways in which Liberal Democrats can reduce inequality, tackle poverty, and provide opportunity for those who have none.
And we will come to conference next year with proposals to meet these challenges – another real contribution to the politics of substance.
You know, my education was paid by for by the state, the sports facilities where I trained as an athlete were paid for by the state – and the health care that I have received was paid for by the state.
So I know the true value of public services.
I know about the way in which they provide the essentials of a decent society, and I know about the way in which they create opportunity.
The Tories told us that public services were safe in their hands.
How hollow those words were.
Labour told us on the eve of the 1997 election that we had “twenty four hours to save the NHS”.
It is true that Labour has put a record amount of money into our public services.
But they certainly haven’t delivered value for money.
A quarter of sixteen year olds drop out of education with no qualifications.
And our creaking transport system is still struggling to cope.
Hospitals are being closed.
Increased investment is not enough to provide the quality services our country needs and deserves.
We need to spend that money more wisely.
Let me set out the principles for Liberal Democrat reform of the public services.
Reforms must be thought through and given time to bed in.
Not rushed through and then abandoned.
The experience of the NHS makes that point.
From the reorganisation of its structure, to the botched reform of doctors’ contracts – it’s no wonder that our doctors and nurses are in despair.
Stability can only be achieved through long-term planning.
If public services are to provide proper value for money, they must plan for the long-term needs of the communities they serve.
That ‘s why localism is our second principle.
Localism: so necessary for our country, but so alien to the Tories – and even more so to Labour.
The Labour Government is like the hurricane that hit the Azores yesterday.
A great, grey depression that spins around sucking everything into its centre.
And its name?
But centralisation is not for us.
We will put power where it is needed.
That is why Liberal Democrats believe in freeing councils to raise and spend their own money.
Because local authorities understand local priorities.
And local problems require local solutions.
Our third principle – services should be tailored to the needs of the individual.
Our public services must put people first: not targets imposed by Whitehall.
That is what public services should be about.
Serving the real needs of those who use them.
That is why we support “pupil choice” to combine both academic and vocational learning in secondary schools.
Education tailored to the needs and interests of each individual – and encouraging young people to stay in school and gain skills.
Public services that plan for the long-term, that serve the local community, and that are centred on the needs of the individuals who use them.
We Liberal Democrats are clear and united in our vision.
We share a great ambition for our party and our country.
We are ambitious to put our principles into practice.
To turn our ideas into action.
My objective is nothing less than to complete the transformation of the Liberal Democrats from a party of opposition into a party of government.
It is only by governing that we will have the opportunity to build a society that is free, fair and green.
Millions of people are represented by Liberal Democrats.
At Westminster, in the European Parliament, the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and in local councils the length and breadth of this country.
And today 17 million people in Britain experience Liberal Democrat government.
That’s 17 million people who know how tirelessly Liberal Democrats work for them.
Great cities like Liverpool, Newcastle, and Cardiff are prospering under Liberal Democrat leadership.
And across the country, Liberal Democrat Council leaders are responsible for a combined budget of over £10bn.
In Scotland, Liberal Democrat ministers are the driving force behind progressive politics.
Look at what they have achieved.
And end to tuition fees.
Free personal care for the elderly.
And fair votes for local government.
Under Nicol Stephen’s leadership, we have great ambitions.
And our party is poised to make many gains in next year’s elections.
The momentum is with us and, next May, Nicol Stephen has a real chance of becoming Scotland’s First Minister.
As in Edinburgh, so in Westminster.
To become a party of Government, we must act as a party of government.
We must make the tough decisions necessary to show that we are radical and responsible.
That we practice the politics of substance.
That we are the party of opportunity in Britain.
My commitment to the beliefs and principles of the party is absolute.
I want to build a Britain that is at peace with itself at home, and respected abroad.
You know, some people yearn for the years gone by.
Some mourn for what is past.
But not me.
I hunger for what is to come – for what is possible.
We should have no fear of the future.
Rather, we should relish the challenges ahead.
I have had three great opportunities in my life: In sport, in the law, and in politics.
And now I have been given one more.
The opportunity to lead our party from opposition towards government.
And when that moment comes, to ensure that we are ready to build a Britain that is free, fair and green.
That is my vision.