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Speech to the London Region Party Conference, London 1997

Paddy Ashdown (Liberal Democrat)

Location: London

Fellow Liberal Democrats, we are now just weeks away from the last election of the century. The election that will determine the direction Britain takes in the next century. A decisive moment for our country.

All around us we see hospitals closing beds and axing services. In our schools we see teachers being sacked and class sizes rising. We see our economy bearing the biggest mountain of debt we have ever faced. We see our nation at the cross-roads in Europe.

Big questions. Time for the big ideas.

And what do we get?

From the men who brought you the Cones Hotline and the promise of a toilet every ten miles on the motorway, come the big ideas to shape the next century ....

a new royal yacht ...

and a cadet force ... in every school!

Let it never be said that at this crucial moment for our country, our leaders had no vision!

There’ll be schools where the children have no inside toilets. But they will have a cadet force.

There’ll be schools with more than forty children to a class. But they will all be able to join the cadets.

And there’ll still be schools with leaking roofs and repairs waiting years to be fixed. But John Major says these don’t come first - the cadets come first, instead!

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’ve nothing against the cadets. Unlike John Major and Michael Portillo, I actually served in the cadets. But it does suggest an astonishing sense of priorities!

And then there’s the flagship of the Tory election campaign. The Tories’ last flagship, you’ll remember, was the Poll Tax. This time it appears to be the Royal Yacht!

Come the moment. Come the Michael Portillo!

For the man who wants the world to know they can’t mess with Britain, it’s hardly Front Line First, is it?

And just imagine what would happen if the Tory Cabinet hired it from Her Majesty for a day out on the water.

On one side, Michael Portillo, John Redwood and Peter Lilley. Rowing furiously to the right in search of the clear blue water.

On the other side, Michael Heseltine and Kenneth Clarke. Frantically trying to steer it in the opposite direction!

And in the middle, head in hands on the bridge, the Prime Minister, desperately hoping something will turn up to save them.

Well it won’t. It’s time to sink this tired, divided, useless crew once and for all - and it’s our job to do it.

Have no doubt what a fifth Tory term would mean.

Not just more of the same. The same, but worse.

No big ideas. No new ideas. Just the same old ideas, taken further and further to the right.

Take privatisation. They long ago sold off the family silver. Now, like a junkie desperate for cash to pay for their next fix, they’re down to the family furniture. The London Underground. The Royal Mail. Even the Inland Revenue. All up for grabs in the great Tory Car Boot Sale. I’m not sure what we’ll have left after another five years of the Tories.

This is a Government so desperate to look like they haven’t run out of ideas, they’re prepared to consider any right-wing nonsense. However wacky. However crazy it may seem to the rest of us. However distant from the things that really concern people.

So what of the alternative? What of Labout?

Well, unfortunately, Labour have lost their vision ... and seem ready to lose their soul, so long as they win the election.

The message is New Labour, No Difference.

Labour seem so frightened of their record and reputation on tax, that they now tell us they can offer no new investment for our schools, hospitals or public transport.

They are so desperate to look tough on crime that they offer no principled defence of our civil liberties and no practical support to help homeless people off our streets.

And they are so determined not to frighten the middle classes that they will not do anything to help the poorest in our society, or to protect our environment for future generations.

It is now crystal clear to anyone worried about the state of our schools, our hospitals or our society, that it is only the Liberal Democrats who will now make a difference after eighteen years of Tory government.

Never before has our party gone into an election campaign so clear on what marks us out from the other parties.

Our long-term outlook and liberal views.

Our commitment to local democracy and open government.

Our green agenda.

Our unashamedly internationalist vision.

And our commitment to providing public services to be proud of - properly funded, and with every penny accounted for.

Look at what’s happening in our schools, for example.

Class sizes have risen since 1992, and they’re still rising.

Spending on school buildings has fallen since 1992, and it’s still falling.

More and more schools are becoming dependent on PTA funds for essential equipment like books and computers.

And both Tories and Labour say that they’ll make things better - without spending a penny!

The Conservatives cut and cut. Labour don’t have the guts to oppose them - though that doesn’t seem to stop them complaining about the consequences.

What I said at Budget time and what I have been saying ever since is that there’s no point moaning about the problems in our schools if, when it comes to the crunch, you’re not prepared to invest in doing anything about them.

That is the unarguable fact. Of course there is room for debates on school uniforms, cadets, national homework guidelines. But they must not be allowed to obscure the big picture - which is what both Labour and the Conservatives are trying to do at the moment.

Where the Tories obscure and Labour fudge, the Liberal Democrats are clear. We need both higher standards and extra investment. The two go hand in hand - and only we will deliver them

Early years education for every 3 and 4 year old whose parents want it - the most important investment we can make.

Smaller primary class sizes, and extra resources for books, equipment, and teacher development.

And better post-16 training and adult education later on.

Guaranteed.

Elect Liberal Democrats, this is what you get. £2 billion worth of investment in our children’s futures.

At local level the Liberal Democrat commitment to education already shines through.

In Sutton, for example, there were nursery places for less than 40% of four-year olds when they won power in 1986. Now, there are places for all four year olds.

Or look at the Health Service.

You don’t have to be an expert in public policy to understand the crisis now going on in our Health Service - you only have to read the Evening Standard.

Every day, there is new evidence of a closed ward or axed service.

That shouldn’t be a surprise - the NHS in London is 44 million pounds in debt.

This afternoon Simon Hughes opened a Liberal Democrat debate on health in the House of Commons.

Our message was straightforward: if you want decent healthcare in London, you can’t let things go on as they are.

We need more investment. We need proper accountability. And we need better planning.

The Liberal Democrats are committed to putting an extra £550 million a year into the NHS, over and above the Government’s commitment to an annual real terms increase in NHS funding - the only Party offering extra resources that will make a difference .

Will it make any difference? After all, the total NHS Budget is in the billions.

The answer is yes. Because we are targeting that extra money very specifically at two key, achievable objectives:

First - abolishing charges for eye and dental checks..

And second - ensuring no-one has to wait more than six months between diagnosis of and treatment, and that there are more doctors and nurses on wards to deliver the care people need.

Two achievable objectives. Fully thought out. Properly costed.

One to prevent ill health in the first place. Common sense, and cost effective too. It makes far more sense to deal with problems with teeth and eyesight early, rather than allow them to develop. And we will do it with a few extra pence on the price of a packet of cigarettes.

The second, to reassure people that they will get the treatment they need in a realistic timescale, by giving hospitals the resources to hire extra doctors and nurses to increase their efficiency. And we will do it by closing off a tax loophole on payment of wages in kind that should have been shut off years ago.

Contrast Labour - who are now in the extraordinary position of promising to spend even less money on the NHS than the Tories!

Second, Liberal Democrats promise proper accountability - so that decisions made by managers on NHS trusts are accountable to the local people they are supposed to serve.

And third, we need better planning.

Tonight is the first mid-week National Lottery draw. But if you or your family rely on the NHS at the moment, every day is a lottery.

For the closures of beds and the axing of services is not being carried out in any co-ordinated strategic way, but through the chaotic resolution of hundreds of local financial crises.

I know you can have too much planning. But for all the extra managers created by Tory bureaucracy, there is no strategic planning whatsoever in the NHS these days..

And that is obvious to all of you campaigning about the state of the Health Service in your local communities - in Islington and Hackney, in the City, in Tower Hamlets, in Barnet and Edgware and Hillingdon, and Richmond, Kingson, Sutton and Southwark.

Tonight I want to put forward a sensible proposal to stop the permanent revolution and permanent chaos in our NHS, to which I hope other political parties will sign up.

What we need is a full independent audit of NHS facilities, to match beds and services with patient needs. While this review is going on, there should be an immediate halt to bed closures and service cuts.

The King’s Fund, one hundred years old tomorrow, would be the obvious organisation to be responsible for conducting the review, with the resources to do the job, and with representatives nominated by all political parties, as well as others.

That would help to establish a review with a standing and authority similar to the Nolan Commission into standards in public life.

The review team could report within six months, in time for the Chancellor to make proposals at the time of the Budget.

After that, sensible strategic planning should be built into the NHS on a permanent and long-term basis.

Instead of renegotiating contracts annually, contracts should be put on a three-year basis, providing financial stability and cutting unnecessary bureaucracy.

Every year, there should be an annual State of the Health Service debate in Parliament.

And finally, responsibility for strategic planning of London healthcare should be put into the hands of a regional health authority working as part of the democratically elected, London-wide authority that is now such an urgent priority, and to which the Liberal Democrats are so strongly committed.

The scrappy and disorganised way in which wards and hospitals have been proposed for closure around London shows vividly the price we are paying for the absence of strategic thinking across the capital.

The rapid growth of London through the nineteenth century put terrible strains on our capital, and created the need for all sorts of new services.

Sewage boards, public health boards, water authorities. All were set up separately on an ad hoc basis, as and when the powers that be decided action was needed. And they multiplied. And eventually the jungle of agencies and boards became so much, and the provision of related services became so hard to co-ordinate, that people decided the strands had to be brought together and merged into one single body.

And yet a century after London-wide government was first established to meet this need, things have come full circle - and the price Londoners are paying is very high indeed.

This is most obvious in London’s transport chaos. We all pay the price for our gridlocked streets and expensive, unreliable public transport - in our health, in our environment, in the delays and crush getting to work, and in the costs to business.

There are things that could be done to sort this mess out - and Liberal Democrats are powerful advocates of a new transport strategy for London. But the mess won’t be sorted out while there is no democratic forum co-ordinating efforts across the capital.

The Government’s most recent answer to the post-GLC chaos has been the Government Office for London.

But a Government outpost will never be more than devolved bureaucracy.

It will never be a voice for London, and for Londoners.

It could never be a springboard for an Olympic bid, for example.

Or for any truly proactive attempt to tackle the terrible traffic congestion.

And it must be doubtful whether any body of civil servants with essentially national loyalties will fight as vigorously against other cities for European funding and international investment as a democratic London body with strong voice, truly independent of central government.

The Government Office for London is theoretically accountable to ministers, who in turn are supposed to be accountable to Parliament, who are nominally accountable to the people.

I don’t believe this is an acceptable level of accountability for London’s main strategic authority.

Accountability at two removes is accountability obscured. And at the end of the day, it is accountability lost.

The document you are discussing tonight, ‘A Strategic Authority for London’, sets out with great thought and clarity the reasons for, and the role for, a democratically elected strategic authority for London. It is an excellent document, which I hope will provide the basis for the creation of such an authority after the election.

And when such a body has been established, the Liberal Democrats will be in a very strong position to fight for election to it.

In contrast to the regular embarrassment which Labour and Conservative councils are to their party’s leaderships, our councils are a continuing source of pride to me. Ever more abundant evidence that if you vote for Liberal Democrats, you get Liberal Democrats.

Of the five councils on the short-list for the “Local Government Chronicle” Council of the Year award, there is only one from London. I have to tell you that, like two of the other councils on the short-list, it is run by the Liberal Democrats - and Richmond and Kingston, I have to tell you it is Sutton!

But that short-list illustrates my point about Liberal Democrat councils. Where Liberal Democrats have power, we do things differently, and we put people first.

People increasingly recognise this - and that gives us a tremendous base from which to fight future elections in our capital city.

But first, we have the General Election.

This is a tremendous opportunity for our Party.

We have a powerful message.

We are fighting every seat.

We will be hard on the heels of the Conservatives in the key seats where they have to be beaten, and hard on the heels of Labour where people are only too aware of what Labour government can be like in practice.

I am determined that this country goes into the next century facing up to the challenges before us, and head held high in pride and self-confidence.

That will not happen if things stay as they are.

It will only happen if Liberal Democrats are able to make the difference.

We are the only people with the policies and commitments to put Britain back on track.

We are the only people who will really make a difference after eighteen years of Tory misrule.

I am determined to do it.

I know you are determined to do it.

After tonight, let’s get back on the streets, doing what we do best.

Telling people what Liberal Democrats are all about.

Showing people what Liberal Democrats are all about.

Showing people there is an alternative.

There are just days to go.

Let’s make maximum use of every single moment.

Good campaigning. And good luck.

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