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Leader's speech, Great Yarmouth 1982b

David Steel (SDP-Liberal Alliance)

Location: Great Yarmouth


At the time of this SDP conference, a key issue for the Alliance was the allocation of seats between Liberal parliamentary candidates and those of the SDP. The forthcoming general election was therefore a central theme of Steel’s address, and he promised to go ahead with schemes such as the modernisation of the telephone system and the rail network, and the Severn Barrage. He also proposed measures to promote co-operation between employers and employees, which would help to rebuild Britain’s economy. With regard to international affairs, Steel pledged that Britain would have a central role in the European Community, and identified a need to tackle such problems as poverty in the developing world and nuclear disarmament.

The task for our two parties is to increase our standing in the opinion polls before the general election starts in the near certain knowledge that we should be able to increase it further during the election campaign itself. It is a little understood fact that on average over each general election since 1964 the Liberal Party has increased its share of the poll during the actual campaign by about one quarter, indeed at the last election by more than a half.

The last published national poll (MORI in the Daily Express) put us at 27%. We should not be surprised or dismayed by fluctuations in that figure between now and the next election, but taking that as a base even if our Alliance performed no better than the average Liberal increase during the last six general elections we would end up with 33% of the vote. In other words, we are on course right now to break the 40-year-old two-party duopoly in British politics.

But 33% under the lottery of our existing electoral system would not be enough to guarantee us the largest number of seats in the House. We must during the next election try to increase our support by more than the previous average Liberal increase. But we have only to put on as much as the last Liberal campaign to be home and dry. And it is my belief that we could and should, because of the construction of our Alliance, do a great deal better than previous. Liberal advances.

The Alliance of our two parties can do something which the Liberal Party on its own - and dare I say the SDP on its own - could not do: that is offer a credible and strong third choice of government to our people. Separately our two parties can achieve significant influence in our politics. Together we can achieve the power to put our ideals into effect. That is the significant difference.

This position could not have been reached without the formation of the SDP. It would not have been reached without the courageous step taken by David Owen, Bill Rodgers and Shirley Williams in putting their own considerable public careers at risk in leaving active Labour politics. It would not have been reached without that magnificent seizing of public imagination which Roy Jenkins achieved in his Dimbleby lecture. The lead which he gave us all then has been carried through in his seemingly unlikely, arduous but triumphant campaign at Warrington and Hillhead.

This has been a difficult year for both our parties in the putting together of our Alliance. I believe that the mood of this conference like my own at Bournemouth is overwhelmingly to tell all our local parties to settle down and accept whatever disappointments there are inevitably on both sides in the final allocation of seats and now to turn outwards on to the attack.

When we began the process of seat allocation I said that it had all the potential for 600 first class rows. We haven’t had 600 rows – we’ve had perhaps 20 - some larger than others. But what new marriage doesn’t have its tiffs? The truth is that in the vast unpublicised majority of constituencies our two parties negotiated and co-operated astoundingly well together.

I want to quote to you a letter typical of many I received from one of our prospective candidates who is standing down:

'It would be wrong to pretend that I am not bitterly disappointed, but when I voted in support of the Alliance at Llandudno I knew that I might have to stand aside as a Parliamentary Candidate - but of course hoped it would not happen to me. I know I do not have to rehearse to you the pleasure and frustrations of being a Prospective Parliamentary Candidate but this decision will be particularly hard for my family. Seven years ago when I became PPC for this constituency we sold a home we all dearly loved to move to live in the constituency, our youngest left her school and all three children eventually went to school locally. My wife changed her job to teach in the local comprehensive school and we accepted the upheaval because we both believed that for me the only way to nurse the constituency was to live in it and become part of it. I have in my Association the usual band of dedicated Liberals, some of whom kept the flag flying in those lean political years after the war and it will be harder for them to accept this decision than it is for me. I will do everything to sustain and strengthen my association and to develop the excellent relationship we have with the Social Democrats here. The negotiations on seat allocation in our region have gone on for far too long and I will speak in favour of accepting the package at the Chairmens’ meeting this evening. I believe that the Alliance must be a wholehearted commitment and be seen to be one of unity in pursuing a common political goal. This must take priority over what will be very real disappointments in some constituencies not only for Liberals but for Social Democrats as well. The success of the Alliance is that one rare opportunity in several generations to win some real measure of the political power we are all seeking to bring about radical changes in society.'

That letter contains the authentic voice of Liberalism - and I hope it will be heard in those few remaining places where some well-publicised members in both our parties have still to raise their sights beyond their own constituency preoccupations to the wider horizons beyond.

We now go forward together as two parties sharing common objectives and determined to organise to achieve them. Let me say that does not mean that we should pour the ingredients of our two parties into a mixing bowl so to speak. That way we should merely produce a blancmange. The real strength in our Alliance lies in linking of two separate parties each with its own distinctive characteristics and constitution. We should learn from the strength and weaknesses of each other and so emerge all the more capable of providing together a united alternative government.

The Alliance is not a party. It is a movement combining two parties, a movement of conscience and reform which can capture people’s hearts as well as their minds. If we are to achieve fundamental change in our society we will not do so by turning back into the dead end of party chauvinism. The time of laborious preparation is over. We must call the Alliance to battle stations.

Our dialogue with each other is now one of mutual understanding and acceptance. So it is time for us to open a new dialogue with the electorate - and I mean a two-way dialogue, talking and listening. If there is one quality above all which characterises the new politics and which the Alliance stands for it is openness. We want to listen to what people tell us. We want to frame our politics together with them. We want to be open to new ideas.

The old class politics have shut the electorate out. Tory and Labour alike have become so self-obsessed, so consumed by ideology, that they cannot hear the true voice of public opinion.

Real leadership involves people in a common enterprise. Our Alliance has become such an enterprise, showing a common purpose and working together. It is the same pattern of hope we must now offer for the factories, the offices and the communities of Britain.

The choice at the next election is simple: continue downwards on the Thatcher/Foot path of division and decline, or work together with the Alliance and thrive.

We are not a cold coalition of calculation. We represent a true meeting of minds. We are a close partnership of equals. We must become a movement which runs the length and breadth of this country, transforming the dark days of despair with the warmth and brightness of our conviction.          

The Labour Party meantime is not only producing the old unworkable solutions of extending state control of the economy, but by threatening to withdraw from the European economic community they will pile the biggest ever disruption to our trade and commerce on top of the calamity left by the Tories. There is no surer recipe for extending the dole queues than this.

But it is not so much Labour policies that are unacceptable as the Labour Party itself. In all the argument over the right and wrongs of Sid Weighell’s resignation there has been exposed to the public the sheer indefensibility of Labour’s organisational methods. One man could decide how to place thousands of votes for the Party Executive, a quantity of votes based entirely on the amount his union decided to buy through their affiliation fee. These votes are cast on behalf of union members who may not even be supporters of the Labour Party at all.

The Labour Leader is now in charge of a party so eroded in grass roots membership, so infiltrated by the far left in its constituency branches that he has had to mobilise the lumbering union tanks to maintain his authority at all. No one could seriously trust the future government of this country to a party composed partly of Trots and Militants and partly of such undemocratic manoeuvres. It is time for any of those left in the social democratic wing of the Labour Party to recognise the rot is too deep to be eradicated. They should leave now and join up with           us. Because at the next election the British people will no longer be faced with the limited choice of the frying pan or the fire. There will be a third positive and attainable choice.

At the Conservative Party Conference we heard grim warnings that a vote for the Alliance might in fact do something else and accidentally facilitate the return of a Labour Government. This sudden concern for the distortions and lunacies of our fraudulent electoral system is touching - the spectre of a Labour government elected with 37% of the vote. Yet I hardly see that the 44% support for Mrs. Thatcher’s present administration at the last election can be regarded in any way as morally superior.

Having played the loaded dice, Mrs. Thatcher and Mr. Foot now see the truth: the more substantial the Alliance vote the more certain will it be that the House of Commons will never again be hijacked by an artificial parliamentary majority without a real basis of majority popular support. Our aim is a people’s parliament – at the very least with the Alliance frustrating the dogmatic instincts of the two class-based parties - but at the most breaking once and for all the failed political system with fundamental parliamentary and constitutional reforms.

In international relations our task must be as a government for the first time to give a British lead to the European Community, and transform it from being merely an economic club to a politically powerful force capable of ushering in a new world order. A linkup between such a united Europe and the uncommitted countries of the Third World could have fresh impact on the problems of development, international trade and finance, and disarmament.

On the quest for peace let me say how strongly I agreed with the point made by David Owen yesterday that disarmament in one nation alone would do nothing to increase our security. Our determination to give real impetus to multi-lateral nuclear disarmament is designed not only to achieve a Europe free of the need for the deployment of cruise missiles, but a withdrawal of the Russian SS20s pointed in our direction as well.

The other two main areas of economic reform are more difficult. The Tories are planning the traditional consumer-led boom of tax cuts before the election. It is they who are the peddlers of the easy solution, not us. It will do nothing to restore our industry because it will boost ready imports still further.

Ours is a more difficult solution. It is not a consumer-led boom, but an investment-led boom. We have to kick-start the nation’s economy again by a series of prudent and carefully costed public investments improving our economy in the long run, and through contracts to private industry, providing jobs in the short run. We shall press ahead with railway and telephone modernisation, with improving homes with insulation schemes and the routine tasks of replacing worn out city sewerage systems. We can go for new items like the Severn Barrage to use tidal power and we can aid the emerging high technology industries.

All of this can only be achieved without causing inflation if we have a sustained prices and incomes strategy to control it. And that in turn will in my view only succeed if it is embedded on a whole new partnership deal for British industry.

We are not only going to give, in your apt phrase, unions back to their members, we are going to re-state company law to give employees a new status in how their place of work is run and a share in profits from their labours. The way open to us is to introduce a complete industrial revolution of the mind. No longer will there be two sides of industry aided and abetted by the Labour and Tory parties, we shall be united in a common co-operative effort to rebuild the British economy.

That will not mean just tinkering changes, but a radical prospectus as relevant to our age as was the constitutional reform package of the great 1906 Liberal Government and the welfare reforms of the 1945 Atlee Government. These two were 40 years apart. We are now 40 years further on. We are at a new watershed in our political history. The class divisions of the two stale parties must be abolished. The co-operation and alliance between our two parties must become the pattern we transfer to our society as a whole.

Ours is not just an Alliance for government, it is an Alliance for a new spirit of effort, of unity, of hope. We are now in Alliance for victory - not for ourselves but for our people. To those throughout the country distressed at Britain’s continued decline and fear for our future we say hold on, don’t despair, our forces are now mustered, we are coming to your rescue.

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