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Leader's speech, London 1987a

David Steel (SDP-Liberal Alliance)

Location: London

Commentary:

This Alliance Rally was the last one held before the general election of June 1987, for which the Liberal Party and the SDP produced a joint manifesto. At the time of this conference, long-term unemployment, crime and social inequality were rising, while public expenditure was falling. To tackle these problems, the Alliance promised to invest in real jobs, enhance the role of women in society, forge closer ties with Europe, and increase spending on public services.

I have read that this great meeting today is all about the Alliance. So it is, in one sense. We came together as two separate parties six years ago this summer. We meet here together today, Liberals and Social Democrats, in unity. Together. With one team of spokesmen speaking for us all. With one set of policies agreed between us and amongst us. With almost 600 prospective parliamentary candidates selected together in a spirit of amity and common purpose.

Let no Tory or Socialist think they can divide us before, during or after the election. Our Alliance draws closer each day. Our unity of principle and purpose is complete and indivisible. We are setting out to tackle two Goliaths and we have two Davids to do it

But in the wider sense today is not primarily about the Alliance. It is rather about our country, about Britain.

The coming election will be deeply negative, with fear of Thatcherism and distrust of Labour sweeping the country in two confused tides. Our role is to provide a positive focus for the future, a beacon of hope to penetrate the gloom and confusion. 

But hope depends on realism. It is realistically impossible, for instance, that the Labour Party can win a majority of seats at the next election.

We know it, because we see how soft Labour support is on the ground and how much the Party has been damaged by municipal megalomania. But what is more to the point, the voters know that Labour cannot win, and so ultimately does the Shadow Cabinet. Labour are losers.

With a fair voting system it would be easy for us to replace this government.

Without proportional representation, we shall just have to try harder. We shall have to work even longer hours, canvass even more doors, put out even more leaflets and persuade millions more of our message.

There must be a progressive alternative to Thatcherism. There must be a government which gives ordinary people a chance to make a success of their own lives and which ensures they are cared for when things go wrong. The ideologies of Thatcherism and Socialism must be driven out - and the people of this country must be enabled to take power for themselves.

Government statistics out this week have thrown the spotlight on the reality of life for so many of our citizens. Britain in the eighties is becoming an ever more divided nation. True, the majority still enjoys a comfortable existence in prosperous areas; but a growing minority is trapped in the twilight zones of our old industrial cities or the bleak overspill council estates. The bottom forty per cent of households saw their share of the national income fall by 25% between 1981 and 1984.

Long-term unemployment has soared: over 40% of the unemployed have been out of work for over a year compared to only 25% when Mrs. Thatcher took office. Crime and drug addiction have spiralled up while hospital beds and university places have been cut. The shot in the arm that Mrs. Thatcher promised Britain has turned out to be a shot through the heart.

British institutions no longer guarantee freedom and justice as they once did; worn out, they offer only a pretence that all is still well. State power grows, while protection against it shrinks. There is a retreat from kindness and tolerance, a new sense of public unfairness.

Compare the perspectives of the parties.

Our plans are for the long term future of Britain, whether it is our plan for closer European co-operation, for a proper national conservation policy to save energy, or for investment to provide real jobs in construction and other industries. 

Their plans are for the short term - income tax cuts to buy the election and fiddling the unemployment statistics to take people off the dole queue for little more than the duration of the campaign.

One long-term change we seek and in which I take particular pride is our consistent emphasis in ‘The Time has Come’ on an enhanced role for women in society.

If anyone needs evidence of that commitment just look at the line-up of women candidates, adopted by the parties for the next election.

The Alliance has adopted the most women candidates. 81 will be fighting and winning constituencies for us. Not enough but Labour have 73 and the Conservative Party, for reasons I can only speculate, has only 16. Mrs. Thatcher seems to have done for women in politics what the Boston Strangler did for door to door salesmanship.

You can tell a lot about parties by what they practise rather than by what they preach. All the major British parties say they believe in democracy. We in the Alliance parties certainly do. We go in for an open and accountable way of working. It isn’t always comfortable - but that’s democracy.

The Labour Party professes the same beliefs. But look at what actually happens in so many local authorities. Closed caucuses. Militant minority rule. Accountability not to the people but to the local Labour Party bosses.

As for the Tories, if you look at their national and regional organisation you can tell how keen they are on democracy. Their whole hierarchy, from the Chairman down, is appointed not elected. 

But this week there has been some good news. Somewhat surprising proposals that party office-bearers should be elected in future. Promises that there will be a choice of candidates. Democracy is creeping into the system.

No, not in the Tory Party. In the Soviet Union! At this rate of reform, General Secretary Gorbachev will be democratically elected before Chairman Tebbit.

The Tory party never changes. Let me ask you:

What do Morgan Grenfell and Ansbacher have in common? No, not simply an involvement in Guinness and a resignation of their top men.

They both contribute substantially to the funds of the Conservative Party - 30,000 between them in 1984.

Of course they are not alone. Year in, year out, the City, lavishes hundreds of thousands of pounds on the Tories.

But how can it possibly be in the interests of democracy and good government that the party which forms an administration is dependent for its election on the hand-outs of those it regulates?

Just as Labour’s relationship with its Trade Union paymasters has persistently corrupted its legislative programme, so the Tories are bound to be less than whole-hearted in cleaning up the City. Of course they claim to be horrified and shocked now, but their horror is more a reflection of political embarrassment than a consistent determination to be tough. 

Until the current scandals have been cleared up and a proper regulatory framework has been agreed, Mrs. Thatcher should not accept donations from the City. 

Now, our opponents sometimes suggest that we may have the ideas but what about the people? ‘Who do they have?’ they say.

What is it that we are supposedly unable to match?

The charisma of Geoffrey Howe?

The humanity and charm of Nigel Lawson?

The judgement of Jeffrey Archer?

The commonsense and common touch of Nicholas Ridley?

Or is it just the quiet dignity of Edwina Currie?

Our Alliance team outshines that lot

We are successfully challenging head on the values of the Government we are seeking to replace.

What sort of society is it which treats the electorate as donkeys to have tax-cut carrots held in front of them to catch their votes? People would prefer the government to invest in the future: in our housing and education. That’s what we voted for at the last Budget and people respected us for it.

What sort of Government have we which, at a time of real hope of nuclear weapons reduction by the Soviet and American leaders, seeks unilaterally to multiply Britain’s nuclear arsenal.

What sort of society have we created where the disparity of wealth and opportunity between the South-East triangle and the rest grows year by year?

How far are we from a just society when the Government can spend 30 million advertising the sell-off of an asset which belongs to us all so that a quick killing can be made by a lucky few while the same government cannot find 20 million for dialysis machines to save lives and relieve pain?

What kind of Government have we which can stand by watching magnificent voluntary efforts to relieve global poverty and famine, whilst their own official aid slides downwards, further away from the minimum UN target? 

The qualities which mark out the Thatcher Government - arrogance, stubbornness, lack of understanding, greed and prejudice - are all illiberal. The starting point of our radical programme is a deep revulsion of these values and a burning commitment to change them.

We have had our ups and downs during the six years of our Alliance, and moments of triumph and moments of despair.

I doubt if there has been a single person in this hall who has not at some time stopped and pondered whether it was all worthwhile. 

I don’t mind admitting that my blackest moment came just last month with the shattering blow of David Penhaligon’s death. It affected us all in the Alliance family. Yet after some days I remembered the lines of Archbishop Darbyshire:

Not names engraved in marble make
The best memorials of the dead,
But burdens shouldered for their sake
And tasks completed in their stead:

That spurred me on as it should spur us all. David wanted his children, to grow up in a country which was not riven by divisions between rich and poor, between capital and labour, between black and white. He wanted to see, as we all want to see, a country united.

Neither the Tory nor Labour parties is capable of uniting Britain, because by definition they each represent sectional interest. We stand for the public interest.

The Conservative Party of One Nation of Harold Macmillan has gone for ever. Whatever Mr. Tebbit claims he did or didn’t say, everyone knows the modern Conservative Party is without conscience and compassion.

The Labour Party, weighed down by the baggage of the past and under siege from its own extremists carries no credibility as the alternative government for Britain.

That is why the responsibility, the duty laid on us is such a heavy one.

But we need not take it heavily. Millions outside are willing us to win. Look at that poll yesterday showing 43% will vote for our candidates if they think they can win in their constituencies. It is up to each of us to go out from this hall and campaign with such vigour, such determination, to show that we can indeed win, that we will indeed win.

And our message to the people of this country is very simple: if we win, it will be a victory for you. If the Tories or Labour win, the country will be the loser.

If the Alliance wins, you win.

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