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Leader's speech to Northern Region Party Conference, Hartlepool 1998

Paddy Ashdown (Liberal Democrat)

Location: Hartlepool

It’s been a busy week. You might have noticed!

Welcome to J-Day, plus two.

Or alternatively, the year zero, AJ. After Jenkins.

We should be clear: Thursday was a defining day in British politics.

The Report of the Jenkins Commission is not simply about changing our voting system. It is about changing our country.

It is also, as it happens, a rattling good read. Really!

Which isn’t what you’d expect from a 90 page paper on PR.

But you know Roy - never dull!

The whole Report is marvellously full of great images - what I like to call ‘Royisms’.

“Vote heavy beasts” with different numbers on their backs, “rather like prize bulls at an agricultural show” is, for instance, the prospect conjured up when considering the ‘Weighted’ Vote.

German unification is the “awkward and ill-prepared dish of East Germany” being digested “by the great boa-constrictor of the West German economy.”

The endless choices offered by STV resemble, according to the Report, “a caricature of an over-zealous American breakfast waiter” insistent on offering more choices than people want.

And my personal favourite, the Labour Party, “after many thirsty years”, having “a cornucopia of luscious psephological fruit emptied over its head” at the last election.

I can thoroughly recommend it to you.

£10.30 from all good book stores.

Less than a good bottle of claret ... by some distance.

But very, very valuable for the country.

Take a step back from this week’s events and think for a moment about the qualities we want our society to have.

We want it to be open - open to new ideas, and tolerant of alternative views.

We want the citizens within it to be empowered - through new choices and new opportunities.

We want it to be inclusive, reaching out to the poor, the weak and the marginalised.

We want it to have stability, so business can plan, and long-term concerns like the environment get the priority they deserve.

And we want the kind of society where teamwork and co-operation are cherished and rewarded, and where government is sought through consent not confrontation.

This is the kind of society I want to live in. Not a ‘divide and rule’ society. But an inclusive society, a pluralist society, a ‘one-nation’ society.

This is why I came into politics - to achieve these things. And I suspect it’s why most of you came into politics too.

And this is why we Liberal Democrats prize constitutional reform so highly.

Because we recognise that constitutional reform, and especially voting reform, is not something additional - not an optional extra for a modern Britain. It is the very foundation stone upon which a modern Britain must be built.

It is our political system that sets the rules and provides the context for every other aspect of our society.

If our politics screens out alternative or minority views.

Then how can that not impede diversity in the rest of society?

If our political system is designed to produce and exaggerate confrontation.

Then how much harder does that make it to heal the divisions in society?

If our other political institutions lack the power or the legitimacy or the will to hold Government to account.

Then how can that not lead to a dangerous centralisation of power?

And if the reasons for decisions taken in the name of the people are hidden from those very people.

Then why should we be surprised if cynicism and disillusionment dominate our political culture?

This is why we have fought, and go on fighting, for Freedom of Information in Government.

For a written constitution to control the power of the state.

For reform of Parliament, so it can better hold the Government to account.

This is why we have fought for devolution, to the nations and regions and communities of the United Kingdom.

And this is why we fight for fair votes.

We know that changing the nature of our political system is the key to changing our society. And we understand that fair votes is the key to changing the nature of our political system.

Think about our current voting system, the ‘first past the post’ voting system.

First, it limits choice. It tries to force everybody neatly into two camps. Those who will not, or cannot, join either are marginalised.

Those who do are pushed by the system into conflict.

Second, it is unrepresentative. It exaggerates the support of big parties and discounts supporters of smaller ones. It provides not for majority government but for government of a minority, with untrammelled power.

And not always the biggest minority. Those Labour MPs still high on the glory of last year’s landslide would do well to remember the lessons of their other landslide victory, in 1945.

Six years later, Labour won what remains their record ever share of the vote - higher than ‘45, far higher than ‘97, and 230,000 votes above what the Tories got in the same election. But they lost. The Tories got 26 more seats, won a majority and stayed in power for 13 years - under First Past the Post.

And now the system has an inbuilt Labour bias. The pundits all agree that for the Tories to even get the same number of seats as Labour at the last election, they’d have had to be six and a half percentage points ahead of them. Because Labour’s votes are in the right places and the Tories aren’t. It’s a farce!

So First Past the Post is unreliable, and it is unstable. It turns small changes in public opinion into dramatic electoral swings and radical changes in Government. A pro-Europe Government can be replaced overnight with an anti-European one, an interventionist Government with a free market one, simply because a handful of votes, often as little as five per cent, have changed hands.

That’s why General Election campaigns ignore 95 per cent of voters and concentrate on 5 per cent in the few marginal constituencies that determine the outcome.

This instability means businesses suffer and economic growth is lower. And because it’s easier to swing an election at the last minute with so very few votes changing hands, politicians are encouraged to concentrate on manipulating short-term public opinion, rather than developing long-term policies.

And standing here in Hartlepool, in a county where every MP is from the same party, reminds me of another of the great faults of our current voting system. It polarises the country. North and south. Town and countryside. England and not-England.

Even in May last year, in their greatest ever election victory, Labour won no seats at all in a number of English counties. In Surrey, for example, 130,000 people voted Labour and elected nobody.

In Cumbria 500 fewer people voted Labour and elected four Labour MPs.

The system lacks consistency. In the county of the West Midlands 148,000 people voted Liberal Democrat last year. In Kent, 145,000. But these votes elected nobody. In Powys, less than a quarter of either of those totals won us both seats.

But it is the Conservatives who have seen their representation most polarised by our electoral system. Wiped out in Scotland. Wiped out in Wales. Wiped out in Sheffield, Bristol, Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle - almost all of our great cities.

The 300,000 Welsh Tories elected no MPs. The 500,000 Scottish Tories elected no MPs. The 260,000 Tories in the North East elected one MP. The 160,000 Tories in Dorset elected 8.

This has a huge impact on the focus of political parties. When so many of the Tories’ MPs come from the south of England is it any surprise they have become so out of touch with feeling in the north, and in Scotland and Wales? Is it any surprise they were so unresponsive when they were in power to the legitimate demands for power to be devolved?

And is it any surprise now, when more than half of the Tories’ MPs are from the south eastern corner of England, that they get so excited about the idea of an English Parliament - presumably based in London - but ignore the far greater demands for an Assembly for the North East.

Where parties are already strong, first past the post makes them stronger. Where they are weak it removes them from the scene altogether. It creates monoliths. Tory Surrey. Labour Tyneside. As if there was no other view.

The new system recommended this week by the Jenkins Commission would end that. It would break the Tory monopoly in Surrey. It would break the Labour stranglehold in the North East. Across Britain it would bring alternative voices into the old one party fiefdoms.

Now, the system proposed is not perfect. Of course we’d have preferred STV. But Jenkins is far better than our present corrupt system of election. It offers us, for the first time, the chance for British politics to break out from the prison of First Past the Post.

And by reaching out to the concerns of those who value the link between an individual MP and their constituents, the Jenkins Commission have created the potential for a huge alliance of support for change, stretching well beyond our party and the traditional enthusiasts for reform and taking in a wide section of the Labour Party, many independent observers and commentators, and even some within the Conservative Party.

The value of assembling a coalition of this breadth should not be underestimated. The task is to win the backing of the British people for change. And the greater the alliance that is built, the greater the chances of success.

But be warned. Our opponents will throw everything they have at us. You only had to listen to the Tories at their Conference to realise that.

“The future of our democracy is at stake.”

“In terms of our constitution ... it could hardly be more dangerous.”

Sound familiar? Yup. It’s just what they said about the Scottish Parliament. And the Welsh Assembly. And fair votes for the European Parliament. And reform of the House of Lords. And the establishment of the welfare state in 1946. And Lloyd George’s old age pensions in 1906. And the Great Reform Act in 1832.

And I bet you there was some old Tory grumbling away on the edge of Runnymede Island, saying just the same things when King John signed the Magna Carta in 1215!

Incidentally, I think the quote of the week on the Jenkins Report - leaving aside Roy’s own, of course - was from Alan Beith when he pointed out that Liam Fox, the man the Tories have to put forward to speak for Scotland and Wales because they have no MPs in either, as the nearest thing provided by our current system as to a top up member for Scotland and Wales! He just has to speak for the 800,000 Scots and Welsh Tories from his seat in Somerset!

So we should remember, at every turn, why it is we seek change - for the better government of our country, for greater choice for the electorate, for the empowerment of our people, for the improvement of our democracy, and for the benefit of our society.

The year ahead will be among the most challenging our party has yet faced. The first elections for the Scottish Parliament. The first for the Welsh Assembly. Elections for around half of all local councillors. And, of course, the European Elections in June.

The new voting system for the European elections offers us a tremendous opportunity to greatly boost our representation in the European Parliament. But it also means we will be judged by new criteria. If we fail there will be no excuses.

We have to be better prepared for these elections than we have ever been before.

We can be optimistic. We have a tremendous team of candidates in place, and your Northern team, led by Chris Foote-Wood, are among the best. And every week there is more evidence to make it clear we are the only party with a credible policy on Europe.

Every week Labour’s dithering goes on over the Single Currency, and our businesses go on suffering. Don’t just take it from me. That’s what our Trade Secretary and your local MP here in Hartlepool said after his recent visit to the United States, when he identified the ‘dangerous talk’ about Britain losing interest in Europe, which is causing business leaders across the world to think twice before investing here.

And every week too, it becomes clearer that Conservative policy on Europe is in the grip of the ‘little Englanders’. And don’t just take it from me. Listen to these words, spoken by someone who has been fighting elections for the Conservative Party for 32 years.

“I originally joined the Conservative party because it was committed to playing a constructive role in Europe. But William Hague has shown that he is determined to redefine Conservatism as being hostile to Europe.”

“Following the outcome of the Conservative Party’s ballot on EMU, I have resigned from the Conservative Party and joined the Liberal Democrats ... the only major British political party that is truly committed to a positive relationship with Europe.”

The words of James Moorhouse, a Conservative MEP for the past 19 years. Someone who has had to work with our partners in Europe through the worst excesses and tantrums of Margaret Thatcher. But he persevered. And through the Tory civil war of the Major era, he persevered. But it is now, with Hague at the helm and Michael Howard navigating that he has just given up on them.

Just as Emma Nicholson did. And Hugh Dykes. And Peter Thurnham. And Lord Thomas. And Arthur and Susan Bell, who used to lead the moderate Tories in Scotland. And Peter Price, after 15 years as a Conservative MEP. And Keith Raffan, who was a Conservative MP in Wales in the days when they had them. And Anna McCurley, who was a Conservative MP in Scotland in the days when they had them.

115 years of parliamentary experience representing the Conservatives. Now given up on them. Now putting their faith in the Liberal Democrats. And putting their hearts into the Liberal Democrat campaign for Europe.

Because they know that the Liberal Democrat way is the best way for Europe to move forward.

Because moving Europe forward will help move Britain and the British economy forward.

The service sector may still be growing, but manufacturing stands on the brink of recession, and agriculture is up to its neck in it. Three hundred manufacturing jobs are being lost every day, many of them here in the north east, but while industry burns the Government just fiddle a tune of indifference, as if there was nothing they could do about it.

They play the blame game.

The Chancellor blames the foreigners. The Trade Secretary blames the workers. The Chief Secretary blames the opposition.

Well, instead of playing the blame game, it’s time for the Government to face up to what they can do.

They can make a clear commitment to the single European currency, which would help the level of the pound.

They can provide help for our stricken farming industry, to get it through its worst crisis in 50 years, starting by claiming the EU aid package for farmers that Britain is still refusing.

They can commit themselves to a fiscal package in their next Budget which helps rather than hinders the rebalancing of our economy and the cutting of interest rates. (And if that means delaying the much trailed 10p tax rate, so be it.)

And they can, by strengthening Regional Development Agencies, and enabling the creation of Regional Assemblies, provide more ways for the regions of England to respond to their differing economic situations.

Four things the Government could do. Four things they could commit themselves to now, to help those whose livelihoods are being threatened.

This is not just about economics. This is also about getting the right form of government.

Which is why I take this opportunity to wish you success with the planned North East Constitutional Convention, to be launched in the new year, I understand, bringing together Liberal Democrats, Labour, the church, trade unions and other organisations in the region to push for a Regional Assembly for the North East.

Just as the Constitutional Convention in Scotland paved the way so successfully for the Parliament there, your North East Convention can play a vital role blazing a trail for Regional Assemblies in England, wherever people want them. There is too much political power being hoarded in the corridors of Westminster and Whitehall when it should be being exercised in the towns, cities and regions of our country.

And let this serve as another reminder, that however fiercely we may compete with others at election time, and however strongly we may criticise them when we disagree, where we agree we are prepared to work with others, campaign with others, and fight with others - for devolution, for the Single Currency, for fair votes.

This week has been a crucial staging post in what could be a great decade of reform.

The challenges of the next few years will be formidable.

They will test us to the limit.

But if we have the confidence, the commitment and the spirit to succeed then the prizes we can win for our country will make it all worthwhile.

The battle starts here.

Good luck, and good campaigning.

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