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Speech to local election campaign public meeting, Colne 1998

Paddy Ashdown (Liberal Democrat)

Location: Colne

It’s a great pleasure to be here tonight to give my support to Pendle Liberal Democrats’ local election campaign.

I remember talking to a journalist last year. He asked me how on earth the Liberal Democrats could persuade people to vote for us when we didn’t have the millions of pounds of posters and newspaper advertisements the other parties pay for.

It’s simple, I said. We don’t need to plaster our message on billboards. With the Liberal Democrats, people know what they’re going to get, because they can already see it in action. They don’t have to judge us by what we say. They can judge us by what we do. And what we’re already doing in the councils we run is the best advertisement there is.

That’s why I’m so pleased to be here, in Colne, today. Highlighting the outstanding success achieved by the council under Liberal Democrat control.

And my message to you today is simple. “You’ve got a winning team. Keep it!”

Keep the team for tackling crime - whose CARE initiative - “Community Action Reaches Everyone” - has cut crime on this estate by over 40% in just 18 months.

Keep the team for the environment - who have brought together business, residents groups, and ‘green issues’ campaigners in the Community Action Network set up last year.

Keep the team for efficiency - who have stripped away bureaucracy in the council, saving millions of pounds, while still bringing government closer to people with devolved area committees.

And keep the team who are backing local industry and securing local jobs - building strong private-public partnerships and winning funding for projects like the Oak Mill Redevelopment I visited this afternoon.

Here in Pendle, as in so much of Britain now - from Liverpool to Lambeth, from Southwark to Sheffield - there is a clear choice on May 7th.

Liberal Democrats or Labour.

The Liberal Democrat approach - working with local people, listening, building partnerships.

Or the Labour approach - secretive, centralist, “we know best” - yet so often characterised by financial chaos, incompetence and sleaze.

That’s the choice on May 7th.

But where are the Conservatives?

They’re gone from Scotland. They’re gone from Wales. And they’re gone from most of our great cities too.

But even those who are left are eerily silent.

The good ship Tory has become a ghost ship.

Last year - the Titanic.

This year - the Marie Celeste.

A once great vessel, now disabled by some strange and unnerving disaster. Eerily silent. Drifting aimlessly on with no hand on the tiller.

No-one on deck. No charts to steer by. The crew have mutinied. The Captain and his officers have abandoned the bridge - and handed it over to one of the midshipmen!

And all that’s left is a motley, rag bag collection; a crew so anonymous you’ll see stowaways with higher profiles!

And so the Tories blow with the wind - drifting, from one day to the next.

One day they’re implacably opposed to the Single Currency. The next they say maybe.

One day they say constitutional change will destroy Britain. The next they’re proposing their own.

One day they dismiss the idea of devolution out of hand. The next they’ve decided to campaign for it - for London, anyway.

I tell you what, it comes to something when Tory MPs look wistfully back to John Major for decisive leadership!

So it’s little wonder that, increasingly, people are turning to the Liberal Democrats.

At the by-elections in Beckenham, and Paisley, where we increased our share of the vote as the Tories’ fell.

In Winchester, where we turned a majority of 2 into one of 21,000 in just six months.

And in council by-elections week after week - in Calderdale, in Doncaster, in Berwick, in Stoke, and just last week in Hull - where former Labour and Conservative supporters alike are saying ‘enough is enough’, and they’re turning to the Liberal Democrats.

And why?

Because they recognise that what the Liberal Democrats stand for is what they stand for. What we want to achieve is what they want to achieve. And the things that we are already doing - here in Pendle, and in towns and villages and cities across the length of Britain, are the very things they want to see done - and that they want to help us do.

Working with the people we represent. Consulting them. Empowering them.

Protecting our environment. Providing better services. Putting education first.

You see, as more and more people are coming to realise, when it comes to the things which matter most to them, it is the Liberal Democrats who are working hardest to achieve them.

We are the effective voice today for investment in our schools and our hospitals. In Parliament and across the country.

We are the effective opposition to the Labour Government.

Not afraid to work with the Government, where we agree with them, especially on the great cause of modernising our political system, to help make the changes Britain needs. But where we disagree, not hesitating to oppose them, with strength and with zeal.

We are the effective opposition.

Who was it who flagged up the hidden cuts in Gordon Brown’s Budgets hitting every Government programme?

Not the Conservatives. It was the Liberal Democrats.

Who exposed the Chancellor’s £200 billion hidden ‘war chest’?

Not the Conservatives. It was the Liberal Democrats.

Who brought the Government's shambolic handling of EMU policy - dictated by phone from a Whitehall pub - to public attention?

Who showed up the Government's puny response to the threat of the Millennium computer bug?

Who highlighted the potential £4 billion tax hike hidden in the Chancellor’s abolition of TESSAs and PEPs?

Not the Conservatives. It was the Liberal Democrats.

The fact is, that whether it’s David Rendel taking the Government on over benefit cuts, or Simon Hughes on NHS waiting lists, or Don Foster on rising class sizes, or Alan Beith on civil liberties, or Tom McNally on their failure to act against Rupert Murdoch’s predatory pricing, it is the Liberal Democrats who are showing up the Government’s failures and holding them to account on their promises.

And putting the case for the extra investment needed by our hospitals - and our schools.

Not proposing blank cheques. Or claiming that money is the solution to every problem. But setting out how clear, costed increases, carefully targeted where they will have most effect, can make a difference in the services that make a difference in people’s lives..

Telling people what we’d do. Telling them what it would cost. And telling them how we’d pay for it.

Consider the Budget.

There was a lot in last month’s Budget that Liberal Democrats can agree with.

Help with childcare.

A commitment to welfare reform.

SOME extra money for education and health. Although not enough - as I shall explain in a moment.

All things considered, it was not a bad Budget. But it was not a bold one either.

There was precious little in it for the environment.

There was nothing to dampen down the economic boom.

And, shamefully, for all his talk of families, the Chancellor seems to have ignored one generation almost completely. The Budget does next to nothing for pensioners.

They are today’s forgotten generation.

They were forgotten in the Budget. But they must not be forgotten in this week’s welfare green paper. And they must not be forgotten in this summer’s spending review.

It is simply not good enough to leave hundreds of thousands of our older people stuck in poverty.

People who have paid their dues all their working life, and now find that, rather than the retirement with dignity they had expected, they are being left short.

People who thought they were guaranteed a decent standard of living in their old age and are now left feeling betrayed and defrauded - first by the Conservatives, now by Labour, ultimately by the whole system.

Pensions are the largest part of the social security budget, but no-one seriously believes the current system is working.

In the long-term we must reform the system so that it rewards work and saving and thrift. So that people get what they expect to get. So that the days of the gold watch, followed by the nasty shock, are brought to an end.

We should look at moving to a truly insurance-based system, to provide a greater level of security, and a higher level of provision, than exists today. And more choice for the individual too.

A system which allows people to save with confidence. And where paying contributions is seen as a way of investing money for the future - not chucking it into a bottomless pit.

That’s a way forward for the next generation. But it will do nothing for those in retirement now.

So here’s something else the Government should do. Give immediate help to the very poorest and the most needy pensioners. We could do this very easily by taking the derisory 25p supplement the over-80s get on their pension and increasing it to £5 a week.

That would cost us £350 million a year, and which we could more than pay for by cracking down on tax loopholes, like the use of offshore trusts.

That’s what the Liberal Democrats would have done in the Budget. And that’s what the Government should have done - and what they could still do if they choose to.

And there’s something else they must do too. That is, provide the long-term investment that our schools and hospitals so desperately need.

Let us be clear. The Chancellor’s decision to listen to the calls from Liberal Democrats and others and put some extra money into education and health is very welcome.

But the proof of the pudding is in the eating.

On these most vital public services the questions on which we will judge the Budget are the questions the Labour Party set for themselves at the election.

Will it stop school class sizes growing?

Will it stop hospital waiting lists rising?

And the answer, I fear, in both cases, is NO.

The money provided will barely even cover inflation.

You see, the Chancellor has pulled a very simple trick.

He’s still using Tory spending levels. But inflation has risen since the Tories set those levels. On the one hand that means higher tax revenues; but on the other it means higher costs for public services. They’re two sides of the same coin.

Here’s a quick question for you.

Who said this in a Parliamentary Question?

“Will the Chancellor confirm that by failing to compensate for inflation there will be a real deterioration in our essential public services”?

No - not Malcolm Bruce. And not a Tory either - well it wouldn’t be would it. No, that was the question posed from the opposition benches in the 1980s by shadow minister ... Mr Gordon Brown.

Who has now has pulled off precisely the trick he complained bitterly about when Tory Chancellors did it. He has pocketed the extra tax revenue from increased inflation - all £7 billion of it - without giving public services the extra money they need.

And the effect?

Cuts.

Across every government department. Nearly £7 billion worth, oddly enough. A huge black hole in our public finances that last week’s Budget doesn’t begin to respond to adequately.

Sadly, the extra money going to the NHS next year will not even give it the sort of funding increase it got in the Tory years. Every sign is that waiting lists will go on rising, cottage hospitals will go on closing, and problems will go on growing in the NHS throughout the year ahead.

And the same is true for schools.

At the election Labour promised to increase the proportion of our national income we spend on education. But it’s falling. It fell this year. And it will fall again next year - even after the Budget changes.

So class sizes will go on rising. And teachers will go on being sacked.

And why? Because the Government's strategy is to starve our services of money now to pay for a huge windfall in four years time - just in time, conveniently enough, for the next General Election.

But this makes no sense at all.

Why does a Government committed to ending “boom and bust” economic policies, think it right to indulge in “bust and boom” funding of our public services?

There is no point in saying that the creed of your Government is ‘education, education, education’ - but not until the year after next.

By then the experienced teachers will have been sacked, the school playing fields sold and yet another year’s intake of our children, or two, will have had their futures blighted. You can’t re-run a child’s education.

That’s the message you can send the Government on May 7th.

You can tell them: these things need not be happening. Hospitals need not being shut. Waiting lists need not be growing. Class sizes need not be rising. Teachers need not be being sacked.

Things can be different.

There is another way forward.

Building opportunities - for work, for study, for fulfilment.

Investing in quality public services.

Providing security, safety and confidence - for the old and the sick and the vulnerable.

A cleaner, greener environment.

Control for people over their own lives and their own communities.

And, most of all, educational excellence.

This is not a promise of what we will do. It’s the record of what we have done - and a statement of what we want to continue doing.

Here in Pendle, you can already see the evidence around you.

Here in Pendle, Liberal Democrats already are making the difference.

And with your support, we can go on making the difference.

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