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Speech to by-election rally, Beckenham 1997

Paddy Ashdown (Liberal Democrat)

Location: Beckenham

First of all, sorry I’m late! I’ve been voting!

Voting on a motion in support of our most vital public services - our hospitals, our schools, our police.

It’s a Liberal Democrat motion, and it’s because the Liberal Democrats chose to that we’ve been debating this today.

It wouldn’t have happened otherwise. Because it’s in the interests of both Labour and the Conservatives that these issues are swept under the carpet.

It’s in Labour’s interest because these issues are becoming rather an embarrassment for them. They know they made promises at the election that they can’t keep. They said they’d reduce NHS waiting lists, and cut school class sizes. But they haven’t provided the resources to do it. So waiting lists are continuing to rise, and classes are becoming more and more overcrowded.

And it’s in the Conservatives’ interest because the problems our public services face are of their making. And the spending limits that are making things worse are the ones that they set!

You see, on all the things that matter most to people - health, education, crime, our environment - it is the Liberal Democrats who are holding the Government to account.

How could Jacqui Lait lobby the Government effectively for more money for local hospitals? When she was part of the Government which underfunded them in the first place!

How can the Tories argue for more investment in education? When it’s Tory cuts that have brought education to its knees!

That’s why, week after week at Prime Minister’s Question Time it hasn’t been William Hague and his Tories putting the Prime Minister under pressure on funding for our schools and hospitals. It’s been us, the Liberal Democrats.

And across the country, it hasn’t been Conservative councillors, MPs or activists embarrassing Labour over their spending plans. How could it be - when it was the Conservatives who set them!

No, it’s been the Liberal Democrats. And it was pressure from us, and the doctors, and the nurses, that has won the extra 300 million pounds for the NHS this winter.

It’s rather too little and it’s rather too late. But it’s a start. And it’s a sign that sometimes, constructive, persuasive politics can be more effective than the old ‘yah boo’ slanging matches.

Every vote for Rosemary Vetterlein on Thursday will tell the Government that it’s a start that urgently needs building on.

Every vote will send the powerful message that people want to see real investment in our NHS. Action that really will get waiting lists down - so people don’t have to wait six months and more for operations, and so people with serious medical problems don’t keep having their operations cancelled at the last minute because hospitals can’t cope.

That’s what the Liberal Democrats are fighting for. And if you elect Rosemary to Parliament next week you will have the strongest possible voice fighting for you and for a fair deal and decent funding for your local hospitals.

Hospitals like Bromley and Farnborough, which are so overstretched that they may have to delay all but emergency operations this winter, causing record increases in waiting lists. Rosemary has made it her business to champion their cause. I want you to champion it too - by voting for her, so that she can champion it on the green benches of the House of Commons.

Because when it comes to the things which matter most to people it is the Liberal Democrats who are fighting hardest for them.

And nowhere moreso than in our schools.

Think about the Liberal Democrat policy of putting a penny extra on income tax to pay for education. It was the most popular policy on offer from any party at the General Election.

And why did we propose this?

Not because we like the idea of putting up tax. Nobody likes paying higher taxes.

But because we recognise that the education of our children should be the highest priority our nation has. If we fail at this, then we are failing our children and we are failing as a nation.

And we are failing at the moment.

Too many children are sitting in school classes so big they cannot get the attention they need and deserve.

Too many children are having to sit in draughty, damp, leaking and temporary classrooms, because the money isn’t there for building work.

Too many children are having to work from out of date textbooks, or ones they have to share because the school can’t afford enough to go round.

And too many children are being denied the chance of nursery education to give them a better start in life, because there simply aren’t enough places to go round.

Some people are fatalistic. They think things must always be this way. They say you cannot ask people to pay just a little more to improve our children’s schools.

I say they are wrong.

The Liberal Democrats say they are wrong.

We say our schools need an extra £2 billion a year, and we say that, if it cannot be found any other way, we should be prepared to put an extra penny on income tax to pay for it.

And what will that pay for?

It will pay to cut class sizes, buy books and equipment, extend high quality pre-school education to all three and four year olds whose parents want it, and improve further and higher education.

Everybody knows the importance of education for our economy, and for our children’s future. It’s common sense. Yet, even with the one-off extra money in the Budget, higher inflation means real education spending is going to be £200 million lower this year than it was even in the Tories’ plans before the election. (And even Kenneth Clarke has now admitted he wouldn’t have stuck to those!)

I fear this will mean another winter of leaking roofs, sacked teachers and rising class sizes - in direct contradiction to one of Labour’s key ‘early pledges’.

But this need not be happening. And you can tell them that next week.

Because every vote for Rosemary Vetterlein will send a powerful message to the Government. That people want to see real investment in our schools. Action that really will get class sizes down and standards up. Action to improve every school and college. Action to give every child the best possible start in life.

That’s what the Liberal Democrats are fighting for. And if you elect Rosemary to Parliament next week you will have the strongest possible voice fighting for you and for a fair deal and decent funding for your local schools.

Because when it comes to the things which matter most to people it is the Liberal Democrats who are fighting hardest for them.

Like effective measures to tackle crime - and the fear of crime that locks so many people, particularly women and older people, in their homes. That’s why the Liberal Democrat campaign for more police on the beat is so vital. We need to get them off the paperwork and onto the streets.

The Conservatives may talk tough on crime, but the cuts they introduced will mean 6,000 fewer police across the country this year. We’ve found savings that could pay for 3,000 more. Now that’s real action to tackle crime.

And we’d bring in real measures to protect our environment too, from the ozone layer down to the precious local green spaces. And how would we do it?

Well, it’s common sense really.

You see at the moment we have high levels of tax on many of the things we want more of - like jobs and wealth; but very little tax on the things we want less of - like pollution, and the use of finite raw materials.

Companies pay tax for everyone they employ - National Insurance. But when they pump out waste or pollute the environment - they pay nothing!

Crazy, isn’t it!

So taking tax off jobs would encourage them to create more. And putting tax on pollution would encourage them to pollute less.

Simple!

But only the Liberal Democrats are proposing it.

Yet more evidence that when it comes to the things which really matter it is the Liberal Democrats who are fighting hardest for them.

And the Conservatives who are nowhere to be seen.

Take the issue of party funding, very much in the news at the moment.

Party funding is an issue that politicians of all parties must get to grips with urgently. It is right at the core of the mess in our political system. And it must be obvious to politicians in all parties that we will not restore people’s trust in politicians until they can feel confident that we are acting as their elected representatives rather than the paid representatives of any sectional interest group or lobbyist.

Now, while the Conservatives are happy to engage in a slanging match over individual cases - although conveniently forgetting that their own hands are not exactly clean when it comes to party donations - they are strangely silent when it comes to the question of real action to reform party funding.

But this is an area that we cannot afford to go on ignoring.

We have to bring this political ‘arms race’ to an end, or we face ending up like America, where all too often it is in doubt whether a politician’s first priority is to govern, or to fundraise for the next election.

At every election the amounts being spent go up. At every election the fundraising efforts of the parties step up a little further. At every election the parties cast their net for donors a little wider, and are a little less discriminating in who they’re prepared to look to for money.

Every big donation is an accident waiting to happen.

Last week’s Formula One fiasco will be repeated time and time again, whichever party is in power, until we finally get to grips with the question of party funding.

It would be wrong to prejudge the conclusions of Sir Patrick Neill’s enquiry. But I think there are four key principles we should be looking to be embodied in the changes that are made to party funding.

First - openness. All names and amounts above £5,000 should be disclosed. For the Liberal Democrats, I have instructed our Treasurer to do this with immediate effect.

Second - voluntarism. The bulk of money should continue to come from voluntary means. Perhaps large scale state funding could not win public support. And there is a real danger it would remove the incentive for political parties to recruit and build themselves as bodies of mass democratic participation. It might allow them to become detached from the people. However that doesn’t mean I can’t see a role for some degree of state funding, but for policy and research, not billboards and newspaper ads.

The third principle is fairness. The laws on election campaign spending date from over 150 years ago, the days when virtually all campaign spending was local. That’s why the only limits on spending are local too.

But things have changed. These days most spending is national. And it’s time to change the law to recognise this too. The same laws that were introduced to stop the rich, and the corrupt, buying success and influence 150 years ago need to be applied nationally as well today if they are to have any meaning.

That’s why I’m calling for a concrete limit on national election spending. Where that level should be set is a matter which deserves to be debated. But how about using, as a starting point, the total of what parties can legally spend locally, that is, around six million pounds. That ought to be enough for anyone to run an effective campaign.

The fourth and final principle we need is broadness.

It is unhealthy, and very dangerous, for any political party to depend largely on one donor, or one small group of donors. No-one should be prevented from showing their support for a political party with a donation, any more than they should be prevented from giving their time for any cause, political or otherwise. But when any single donor becomes crucial to a party’s operations it is almost inevitable that people will be suspicious about the influence they exert.

The time has come to take a serious look at the case for setting a limit on the amount any company, or individual, can give to a political party. For a party to be successful it should depend on mass participation from across society and across the country, not on the support of, say, one eccentric billionaire or the generosity of one small clique of influential donors.

Openness. Voluntarism. Fairness. Broadness.

By putting these four principles at the heart of future party funding I believe we can make real progress toward restoring public confidence in the way our political system operates.

But, sadly, we can’t look to the Tories to help in this.

You see, the Tories have not just lost power. They’ve lost touch with everything they once stood for.

Remember? That’s why we got rid of them on May 1st. And that’s why we don’t want them back.

Once upon a time they were the party of ‘one nation’. Remember?

But today, after 18 years of Conservative Government, their legacy is a country more divided than ever. Between 1979 and 1991, the real income of the poorest tenth in Britain fell by 14%, while the real income of the richest tenth rose by over 50%.

Remember. That’s why we got rid of them on May 1st. And that’s why we don’t want them back.

Once we were told they were the party of sound economics.

Not any more. Now they’re the party of boom and bust.

Remember? They were the government who squandered 210 billion pounds North Sea Oil revenue.

Remember? They took over a national debt which has existed since 1680 (CHECK) and, in six brief years, doubled it! To a whopping 400 billion pounds, costing each of us £?? a week in interest.

Remember! That’s why we got rid of them on May 1st. And that’s why we don’t want them back.

Remember? The Conservatives used to say they were the party of the family.

But they presided complacently over record homelessness and record unemployment in our society - the two biggest factors in family break-up.

Remember! That’s why we got rid of them on May 1st. And that’s why we don’t want them back.

The party of one nation. The party of sound finance. The party of the family. What’s left?

Not the party of business. The business community recognises their failures as much as everyone else.

Not the party of Europe - as they once were. Now they’re on track to becoming Britain’s ‘out of Europe’ party.

Remember the soaring prescription charges. Remember the two-tier NHS lottery.

Remember the sleaze - the cash for questions - the arms for Iraq.

Remember the arrogance; the refusal to listen; the self-righteous certainty.

Remember. That’s why we got rid of them. And that’s why we don’t want them back.

And it’s why so many sane, decent, one time Conservatives - the ones who still believe in ‘one nation’ values of fairness and decency - are leaving them.

And they’re not joining New Labour.

When Emma Nicholson decided the Conservatives had gone too far in the last Parliament she didn’t join Labour. She crossed the floor of the House of Commons and came to join us - in the Liberal Democrats.

And when her former Conservative colleague Peter Thurnham came to the same conclusion he didn’t join Labour. He came to join us - in the Liberal Democrats.

When respected former MP Hugh Dykes left the Tories in September he didn’t join Labour. He came to join us - in the Liberal Democrats.

And last week, when senior Scottish Conservatives Arthur and Susan Bell left the party they’ve supported for more than 30 years. They didn’t join Labour. They came to join us - in the Liberal Democrats.

And now, today, I can tell you that the highly respected Conservative peer, Lord Thomas of Swynnerton, has decided to resign from the Conservative Party that he’s been a member of for 23 years.

He’s had enough. He’s told me that he feels ill at ease in today’s Conservative Party - a party which no longer represents Britain’s long term national interest.

And he’s not joining Labour.

He’s joining a party with policies he can see to be ‘far sighted’ and ‘intelligent’.

He’s coming to join us - in the Liberal Democrats.

Now, why have these people joined us? For the same reasons that thousands of former Conservatives are joining the Liberal Democrats across Britain.

Not because their principles have changed, but because the Conservative Party has changed.

Decency; fairness; conscience; compassion; enterprise; initiative. Generous and caring at home. Outward looking and progressive abroad.

These are the values that they believe in. But they are no longer the values of the Conservative Party.

I say to everybody, in this hall and across this constituency, who holds these values: come and join us. These are our values. They are now. They always have been. They always will be.

Now, we are told the Conservatives say they’ve changed again since the election. They say that, if people give them just one more chance. Next time they’ll work harder. Next time they’ll listen more. Next time they’ll spend less time rowing among each other in Westminster and more time talking to ordinary people.

Well let me tell you something. There isn’t going to be a next time for many long years yet!

So don’t be taken in. When they say they’ve changed, just remember. Remember their record.

Then ask yourself why on earth you should believe them now.

In my book actions speak louder than words.

Here in Beckenham it is Rosemary Vetterlein and the Liberal Democrats who have the record of action, hard work, and listening to local people.

And in Parliament today it is the Liberal Democrats who are the effective opposition to Labour.

Yes, we will work with the Government, and with others too, where we agree with them, and where, by working with them we can actually make things better.

I’m proud of that. That’s what constructive opposition is about.

But where they are timid, we will be the goad to push them along.

Where they wobble on their promises, we’ll stiffen their backbone.

And where we disagree with them we will not hesitate to tell them, and oppose them, and fight them tooth and nail.

This was the platform on which we stood at the General Election and won our best result in nearly 70 years.

These are the reasons I came into politics, and why I am so proud to lead my party, with people of the calibre of Rosemary Vetterlein in it.

Every vote for Rosemary on Thursday will send a clear message to the Government.

Investment in education. Protection for our environment. Real improvements for the NHS.

The stronger Rosemary’s vote next week the stronger the message you’ll send to the Government. And the stronger the message you send the harder it will be for them to ignore.

Labour don’t need another MP. And the Conservatives, discredited and defeated, don’t deserve one.

On Thursday, make a change.

Choose someone who will stand up for you. Someone who knows local people and local concerns. Someone who will be part of a political force growing in strength, growing in confidence and growing in influence across Britain.

Vote for Rosemary Vetterlein on Thursday, and really make the difference for Beckenham.

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