Leader's speech, Bournemouth 2008
Nick Clegg (Liberal Democrat)
This was Clegg's first speech to conference as party leader, although he had held the position for almost a year.
The speech shows the influence of the Blairite style of speaking. It contains lots of ‘floating’ sentences, slogans or phrases that are perhaps intended to summarise a mood or claim, declarations of feeling or intent.
Interestingly, Clegg makes use of the trope of prosopopoeia - the bringing before our eyes of the ‘face’ of another, perhaps speaking as them. At the start of the speech Clegg conjures up ‘Angie, a middle-aged mum’ and later on we meet ‘Joan’ a pensioner.
In the speech Clegg articulates frustration with the state of Britain’s political system and expresses a desire to reconnect people and politics. To achieve this goal, he proposes a number of measures, which include the abolition of Labour’s identity cards scheme, the introduction of proportional representation, and the protection of public services. But apart from these concrete proposals he also attempts to position himself ‘spatially’. Usually, politicians try to locate themselves ‘spatially’ along the left-right axis of political opinion. Here, interestingly, Clegg weaves a different spatial theme through the speech – an up-down axis. He locates himself and his party on the street level, with Angie and Joan, and the other party leaders are located somewhere 'out of touch', too far away from where real people really live. This theme could tie in well to some of the points about localism developed in the speech. However, it seems to be submerged rather than fully developed. And in the end the opening promise to talk about the future (foolishly contradicted immediately after being made) is not really adhered to.
I’m going to talk today about the future. But let me start by asking you to think back to the past. One year ago. It was a different world. You remember. The Labour government was - sort of - popular. Gordon Brown had dealt with a crisis – competently. Everyone wanted to pay court to The Great Gordon. Even Margaret Thatcher had tea with him. The Sun newspaper wrote: ‘Gordon Brown is in a position of strength.’ And at the other end of Whitehall, David Miliband was telling reporters he wasn’t interested in being Prime Minister. Oh, really, David.
Things were so different last year that when Vince Cable predicted a housing collapse, people just thought he was Victor Meldrew. No one outside this party realised Vince was a twinkle-toed economic prophet.
What a difference a year makes.
But what’s far more important is that things have changed for every family in Britain too. The political changes of the last year are nothing compared with the economic hardships families face now.
Like Angie, a middle-aged mum, who came to see me recently in my constituency. Who said she was finding it difficult to sleep. She told me about that sinking feeling she gets at the supermarket checkout and the petrol pump. Counting down the days until her cheap mortgage deal ends. Switching down to just half an hour of heating in the morning because it’s all she can afford. You know how it feels, don’t you?
There’s this big, intangible thing called the global credit crunch. Banks and funds with names you’d never heard of – Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns. And suddenly you’re worrying – is my money safe, in my bank, on my high street?
These are difficult times.
Our economy weakens by the day.
We survive on oil and coal we cannot afford, from nations we cannot trust.
A firestorm is raging through our financial system, ignited by reckless bankers and fuelled by complacent politicians.
I had a look back recently at Gordon Brown’s final budget last year. Can you believe it. He actually boasted: ‘Our growth will be the highest in the G7.’ ‘Inflation has never gone above 3%,’ he bragged.
Labour offers nothing. They’re so desperate to protect their own jobs, they can’t be bothered to protect other people’s.
They’re the living dead, no heart, no mind, no soul. Stumbling around with no idea what to do. They are a Zombie government. A cross between Shaun of the Dead and I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue. All these backbenchers and ex-ministers you’ve never heard of, rising up from the grave of obscurity to impale their Gordon Brown. Thank goodness Gordon’s got Geoff Hoon, chief whip, chief zombie slayer on his side. Riding to the Prime Minister’s rescue, he declared: ‘It’s important that people who have something to say come out and say it.’ What a shambles.
We can’t predict the future.
We can’t know exactly what challenges our country will face.
But we can be certain that Labour cannot help us.
And we can be certain that the Conservatives won’t bother.
Cameron’s only aim was to make the Conservatives inoffensive. Problem is, once you strip out the offensive parts of the Conservative party, there isn’t much left. Cameron’s hope is to become the Andrex puppy of British politics. A cuddly symbol, perhaps. But fundamentally irrelevant to the product he’s promoting.
I asked my office to do some research over the summer into Conservative policy positions. Before you laugh, it turns out they have actually said quite a lot. 3148 pages worth, in fact. At a best guess, that’s about 1.8 million words. That is three times as long as War and Peace. Or two and half thousand readings of The Gruffalo. I think they’re hoping to produce so much of this stuff that no one will have the time to read it. Because, out of all those 1.8 million words, guess how many translate into concrete commitments?
None. Not one.
You see, when you promise, you have to choose. When it’s all ‘blue skies thinking’ – you can say everything, no matter how contradictory.
You can say you want fairer taxes – but propose to spend billions cutting inheritance tax for the very richest in the land.
You can call for the European Union to be stronger against the Russians – while still plotting to break it in two.
You can say you’ll protect civil liberties – and then call for extra surveillance powers.
You can cycle to work – and have your driver follow behind.
They are a say everything, do nothing party.
David Cameron and his cronies have tried to take over every comforting, soft-focus word in the dictionary. They are for work-life balance, fairness, motherhood, apple pie, saving the planet and custard. You have to admire, I suppose, the sheer gall of someone who worked for Margaret Thatcher claiming he cares about poverty.
But that arrogance. That born-to-rule conceit. That sense he’s already picking out curtain patterns for Number 10. That’s not what Britain needs.
Power must be earned, not inherited.
What Britain needs now is absolute honesty about the situation we’re in. And big, bold ideas to set us right. Quite simply we need a government that listens, understands, and acts. And you know what? The Liberal Democrats can be – will be – that government.
We are the party with the ideas that can get Britain out of this mess.
Because we understand.
There are no mistakes made by government that cannot be set right by the British people, if only they are given the chance.
Ask yourself this: When you meet someone new, someone you don’t know anything about, what do you expect? I’ll tell you what I expect. My basic view of human nature is that people are born with goodness in them. Of course, people can be selfish, cruel or violent. But I believe no one starts that way. Most people, most of the time, will do the right thing. Not just for themselves - but for their family, their neighbours, their community. They need to be trusted to make those choices.
There is a terrible pessimism in the way Gordon Brown thinks we should all be organised from above. Our every move controlled by the great puppet master in the sky. And there’s pessimism too from David Cameron when he says that if you’re overweight, vulnerable or poor, you’re on your own.
Talking down to us.
Talking us down.
What neither of them understand is that if you always see the worst in people, you will never fix anything.
There are huge challenges.
Protecting the planet.
An ageing population.
Keeping our economy competitive as globalisation shifts the power centres of the world.
Everything we know from the last fifty years will change in the next five.
These are challenges that could overwhelm us if we do not harness our potential.
It’s liberalism - optimistic liberalism - that will find the best in Britain.
We have got to get Britain’s economy up and running again. Without jobs, there’s no fairness, no opportunity. So let me set out, right now, our Fairer Future economic recovery plan. Four steps to a better economic future.
One. Action to stop unjust repossessions before tens of thousands of families find themselves on the streets. Guided by the one man who had the foresight to see these problems coming. With more wisdom and experience than Labour and Conservatives combined: Vince Cable.
Two. The free-wheeling, bonus-driven, short termism of the City must come to an end. We must stop the amoral culture that sees speculators betting on banks to fail, knowing the taxpayer will pay out in the end. And the madness of bonuses awarded no matter what. We need a wholly new approach to regulation: limiting, not encouraging, the excesses of the market. And when reckless bankers come with gold-plated begging bowls to ask for shareholders to be bailed out. Our answer should be a resounding No.
Three. We will put in place the building blocks for future economic stability. Interest rates that take house price changes into account. And independent monitoring of our fiscal rules.
And finally - but most importantly. Tax cuts for families who are struggling. To help them make ends meet. And keep the wheels of the economy turning. The money must go direct to people on low and middle incomes. The very wealthy, the super-rich - should be paying more not less. I will never support the Tory idea that you cut taxes for millionaires and the benefits somehow trickle down. That’s not what struggling families need. They need their money back.
I was talking to a pensioner recently. Joan. I could see the anxiety on her face. She was one of the million people who lost out from the 10p tax rate even after the so-called compensation package. Struggling to pay every bill that comes through the door. Worrying about getting through the winter. If you were Joan, what would you want?
Your money spent on a management consultant’s advice on a government IT project that will never work?
Or your money handed back to you?
Liberal Democrats have called for tax rises in the past, when what Britain needed most of all was more investment in our public services. We were right to do so. But what hard-up families need most of all today is food on the table, petrol in the car, and warmth in their homes.
Here’s how we’ll find the money to help them.
We’ll ensure everyone makes a fair contribution - polluters, fat cats and non-doms included.
Our idea is simple. Every person pays their fair share.
Under Gordon Brown, tax has become voluntary for the super-rich and for giant multinational companies. And David Cameron will make it even easier for those at the top. When Northern Rock collapsed, the chief executive got what they call a ‘golden goodbye.’ Thirty thousand pounds tax free. As a thank you for failure.
Who can explain that to Joan?
Why is she paying more, when the man who brought down Northern Rock is getting tax-free handouts?
It’s wrong, and it’s got to stop.
Raising taxes at the top will go a long way to cutting them at the bottom. But we need to do more. This week, we pledged together to deepen our fair tax cuts. To make them fairer still. That means doing the most for those who have the least. It means making sure the richest pay more. And so aiming to make nine out of ten taxpayers better off.
I want this to be the most progressive - most redistributive - tax plan ever put forward by a British political party. Using just a little of the money the government wastes every day to help people in their everyday lives. That doesn’t mean cutting help for the poorest, of course. It doesn’t mean stopping vital investment in hospitals and schools. It just means taking a cold, hard look at all government spending and asking a basic question: Is it working?
Every family in Britain is tightening their belts for the hard times ahead. It is time for government to tighten its belt too.
Labour has doubled government spending from £300bn a year to £600bn a year. That’s 18,000 pounds a second. They’ve taken, give or take a few, 16 million pounds of your money since I started speaking. It’ll be £38 million by the time I’ve finished.
Does anyone in this room believe every single pound is spent well?
And I think it’s liberal to be sceptical. Sceptical that central, controlling government gets things right.
It’s the Labour party that believes every pound spent by government is better than a pound spent by you or me.
We believe ministers should spend money as carefully as if they’d borrowed it from a friend.
We believe that tax is a means to an end and government should not take a penny more than it needs.
We believe returning money to people who need it is fair, liberal, and right.
The other parties say tax cuts aren’t possible. But that’s because they’re too flaky to take the tough choices to make tax cuts possible. Too weak to trim back on wasteful spending. Too in hock to wealthy non-doms to threaten higher taxes for the rich.
Liberal Democrats are not afraid of tough choices. My shadow cabinet is identifying £20bn of government spending that isn’t working effectively. We need to ask ourselves:
When government has proved itself incapable of keeping people’s data secure, why is it spending nearly thirteen billion pounds on a botched NHS IT system?
When our soldiers need inexpensive, off-the-shelf armoured vehicles today, why is government spending fourteen billion on over-complex tanks that won’t be ready for years?
When we want local government to respond to the needs of local people, why are they spending more than a billion pounds filling in forms for Whitehall inspectors?
Making these savings will mean we can afford to spend money on things that really matter.
Homes, care for the elderly, children.
Things that really make a difference.
And then cut taxes for the people who need it most.
I know with this approach - streamlined spending and targeted tax cuts, we can get our economy going again. But I don’t want to reignite the old one. I want us to be the first country in the world to move to a new economy. A green economy.
As well as risking the very future of our planet, our need for dirty energy is crippling us economically. There are growing links between climate change, biofuels, and rising food prices. And inflation is fuelled by fuel. One way or another, together we are going to have to use less energy. And much less dirty energy. It’s the only way to stop the growing threat of disastrous climate change.
There must be no third runway at Heathrow, no expansion of Stansted, And for power stations - no Kingsnorth, no more dirty coal, no nuclear. I want to see public transport expanded, with investment funded through charges on road haulage. I want to see homes and businesses become energy efficient - saving money in the process. And I want a huge expansion of renewable energy - meeting and exceeding the commitments Labour has given up on.
If we make the change now, Britain will lead the world on green technology.
Driving growth through green collar jobs.
Achieving energy independence within the EU.
Independence because our position on the international stage is weakened by the West’s desperate hunger for fuel.
We cower in the shadow of countries we want to stand up to because we’re afraid they might turn off our lights. Just look at where we stand with Russia. And in the Middle East. Dependence on fossil fuels undermines the fight for human rights. It halts the onward march of democracy. It’s got to end.
Instead of basing foreign policy on the principle of ‘who’s got the fuel,’ we need to base it on the principles of justice. On our British values: Freedom, democracy, and human rights. Fair, and green. This is the new economy we will build.
But we need a new kind of government to go with it. To put Britain on the right track for the future, we need to make government people-sized. People-shaped.
I was talking to a father recently about how hard it is to find affordable childcare in the school holidays. And he said, Why can’t we have extra child benefit in those holiday months when we need it the most?
And I was talking to a pensioner, too, who said: I’d prefer to get my winter heating allowance in March, when I have to pay for my winter fuel. Not in December when the money just disappears in the Christmas shopping bills.
Isn’t it blindingly obvious once you think about it?
Benefits should be shaped around the needs of people and families, not bureaucrats. And under the Liberal Democrats they will be.
Our health service needs to be people-shaped, too.
I want patients to have far more control over the care they get, so people with long term conditions get to be part of designing the care they need. Choosing what suits them - and making it work.
For mental health patients.
For pensioners in need of care.
For people with disabilities.
A couple of weeks ago in Sheffield, I met a wonderful woman called Katrina. She’s got three disabled sons. The oldest is Jonathan, a charming, warm hearted young man of 19. He can’t walk or talk clearly, or feed himself alone. He’s had a breathing tube in his neck since he was a toddler.
Under a scheme the new Liberal Democrat council in Sheffield is extending, Jonathan’s just got his own individual budget and care plan. Now he’s doing work with a local charity, attending a music group, has his own personal assistant. A child whose potential seemed so limited. Finally as a young man, engaged in life in a way he and his mother never thought possible. Katrina told me with the biggest smile I’ve ever seen. She said: We’ve gone from having nothing to having everything. I want every child’s needs would be taken this seriously.
What depresses me most about what Labour has done to our country is that they’ve made it a place that’s not fit for our children.
Children are inspirational
Miriam and I can’t wait to be parents again.
I love the way children see the world.
There was a great story I heard recently about a little girl, doing a painting in class. The teacher comes over and says - what are you painting? And the girl says - God.
So the teacher says - But no one knows what God looks like. The girl says - they will in a minute.
Children don’t see barriers. When you’re a child - everything is possible. So how can you not feel angry when you see what has been done to that hope and innocence.
One in three children growing up in poverty. A million in cramped and unsafe homes where they don’t get space to play. More children in prison than any other country in Western Europe. Our children are some of the most unhappy in the world. We have to change this.
The journey starts in our schools. We need to draw out the potential in every child, from every background. Children who are struggling, or falling behind - we must help them with extra support - one-to-one tuition or catch up classes, funded by our ‘pupil premium,’ which targets extra cash at deprived children.
We can engage parents, too - giving them the power to set up schools if that’s what their community needs. Like parents did in Lambeth with help from a Liberal Democrat council. Making education people-sized, people-shaped.
That means making sure there are different kinds of school to suit different kinds of children. One size fits no one.
The government has messed things up for this generation of children. Criminalising, criticising children. Fingerprinting children, instead of supporting them. And they do down children, just as they treat us grown-ups as if we were still five year olds, needing to be checked up on, monitored, controlled.
We are the most spied upon country in the developed world.
A million - a million innocent people have their DNA on a criminal database.
More surveillance cameras than anywhere in the world.
Parents snooped on by council officials checking up on where children spend the night.
They’re even putting tracking chips in our bins.
And for what?
We are still less safe than our European neighbours.
Too many young men are still caught up in a cycle of violence.
As Chris Huhne has so powerfully shown, our prisons have become colleges of crime. They have taken our liberty from us and given us nothing in return.
Liberal Democrats will give our freedom back.
I don’t just mean civil liberties, though we’d restore them.
I don’t just mean human rights, though we would cherish them.
I mean allowing people, families, communities, to decide what’s right for them, and do it. Because the government doesn’t know what’s best for us - and it never will.
I’ve talked about the new economy and the new kind of government that Liberal Democrats will create. I want to talk briefly about the road we will travel together to get there. Simply changing things around at the top will not work. We saw that in 1997. We saw it again in 2007. You can change Prime Minister without changing Britain at all. We need to transform politics. Because unless we bring people in, so everyone can take part, every change we need will fail.
The way Britain’s run today means the government doesn’t have to listen to anyone. Less than a quarter of people voted for Labour at the last election, and yet they get to wield total control over all our lives. What’s incredible is that Labour and the Conservatives alike still say we are the mother of democracies.
What world are they living in?
In 2001 for the first time ever, more people didn’t vote than voted for the winning party. And when it happened, Labour and the Conservatives didn’t pull out all the stops, they didn’t go into crisis mode to fix it. They sat back, and let it happen again in 2005. Surely every rational person can agree – we’ve got to have something different?
When politicians are held in the same contempt as the chewing gum on the bottom of your shoe, shouldn’t we try something new?
An end to big donations.
A parliament that actually holds the government to account.
No more fiddled expenses.
A fair voting system.
A politics that puts people first.
I want our politics to connect with people again.
That’s why in the next nine months we’ll knock on a million doors in Britain, to speak - face to face - with the people we’re asking to support us.
It’s why tonight we’re calling 250,000 people to hear their views on the challenges facing our country.
It’s why we’re streamlining the party’s decision making through the Bones Commission.
And it’s why, ever since I became leader of our party, I’ve held open public meetings every couple of weeks or so. Where everyone’s invited, and anyone can ask a question or raise an issue. Real politics, real passion, real people.
I can’t tell you every step on the road for us as a party. But I can tell you where we’re headed. Government. We grow every year. We’ve been in government in Scotland. In Wales. We run more big cities in England than any other party. At the last General Election we won 6 million votes, more than any other liberal party in Europe. Together we will double our MPs in Westminster. And at the next general election we'll take a giant leap towards that goal.
We can do it because we are the vanguard of British politics. We have been at the forefront of a revolution in ideas.
The first to fight for women’s rights, gay rights, human rights.
The first to understand the problem of climate change.
The first to see the economic crisis on the horizon.
The first to see the vital role of liberal interventionism in international affairs.
And the first to see its limits - and oppose the illegal invasion of Iraq.
We are a powerful party.
We are getting stronger.
And our ideas are the right ones to get Britain back on track.
Remember 1997. Things can only get better? We were told our country would be a success - and no one would be left behind. It didn’t happen. New Labour failed. But there is a new, New Labour on the block. Blue Labour: the Conservative party. Let our country not be fooled again.
If you were drawn to Labour in the 1990s. Because you believed in a better future. Because you were filled with hope that things would get better. Join us. We are the ones who can make it happen.
Labour is finished. It’s over.
The Liberal Democrats are now the only party that can deliver social justice.
The only choice for anyone who wants a fairer Britain.
A party that will put money back in the pockets of ordinary families.
A party that will build a stable, green economy for each and every one of us.
A party that will change politics so that every person counts.
The Liberal Democrats.
Join us, and make it happen.