Welcome to Birmingham, a city with a great, outspoken liberal tradition. The home of Joe Chamberlain, where Gladstone called for Home Rule in one of the most rousing speeches of his life, and where Lloyd George nearly lost his life when he spoke out against the Boer War. Now it’s the home of those great modern day, outspoken liberals – John Hemming and Lorely Burt.
I have spent the last few weeks criss-crossing the country, speaking to as many of you as possible, hearing your concerns and answering your questions. We did what Lib Dems do: discussed, debated, argued – honestly and respectfully. There has never been a gathering of Liberal Democrats in our history that hasn’t seen some sort of disagreement. These meetings were no different, but they reminded me that above all else the Liberal Democrats are a family. We all felt that in May when good friends and dedicated colleagues lost their seats. And I think we all felt it this summer when we heard the tragic news of the untimely death of Andrew Reeves. No one embodied the passion, the dedication, and the warmth, of the Liberal Democrats like Andrew. And I thought it was particularly fitting, given his passion for social media, that so many people paid tribute to him on Twitter that he became one of the top trending topics in the country. To say that Andrew will be greatly missed is a huge understatement. He was there in good times and bad, one of us, one of the family.
Like all families, we have our faults too. That’s why it was great to hear Chris Lucas speak so eloquently earlier about putting one of them right. I stood before you at the rally in Sheffield and said that we are too male and too pale, that if we want to represent all of the country then we must have all of the country represented in us. I look forward to formally launching our Leadership Programme tonight and helping to deliver a party that better reflects our country.
I’d also like to pay tribute to another member of our family – Chris Fox – who is standing down as Chief Executive in the next few months. Chris has done a fantastic job since he took over in 2009. He has modernised and professionalised our party operation, culminating in the move from Cowley Street to the new headquarters in Great George Street this summer. His legacy is a finely tuned political operation that is ready and able to take us on to bigger and better things. Chris has been Chief Executive at a really challenging time for our Party and we all owe you Chris a really heartfelt thanks.
So, The Liberal Democrats are a family. There are those who wish to drive a wedge between us – our opponents, the vested interests in politics and the media who want to put us back in our place. They won’t succeed. Because whether you consider yourself more of a social democrat or a classical liberal, whether your hero is Gladstone or Keynes, Paddy Ashdown or Shirley Williams, we are all, to one degree or another, all of the above. We share the same inheritance. We are cut from the same cloth. We are Liberal Democrats.
Like all families, we have our share of rows – I’m sure we’ll have one or two this week – but they are rows for a reason. To get NHS reform right, to keep fair taxes as our priority, to keep the government green. But after we’ve had our debates we get out there together and fight for it, even when it is uncomfortable or even unfashionable. Telling hard truths. Asking what Jo Grimond called the ‘prickly questions’ of politics. And when we’ve set ourselves to something we don’t give up, no matter how long it takes. We never oppose for the sake of opposition but we never shrink from telling it like it s and fighting for what is right. If that makes us a bit awkward, a bit challenging, a bit difficult, so be it. We are prepared to be awkward. It’s the same quality that makes Liberal Democrat ministers fight tooth and nail in their departments for the things we believe in. In government, it means sometimes we have to be awkward. As our Coalition partners are finding out on a daily basis, we are not here to make things easy. We’re here to put things right.
What you told me is that we’re not getting across clearly enough what we are achieving in government. You have heard tonight how we are delivering in government – fair taxes, a fair start for children, building a new green economy and fixing our broken politics. These are the things we put on the front page of our manifesto and now we are delivering them for our country. And more than that – whether it’s the environment, civil liberties, Europe, localism, pensions, ending child detention, boosting apprenticeships – the list goes on. This government has Liberal Democrat written through it like a stick of Brighton Rock.
We didn’t win the election so we can’t do everything we want to, but we are doing a remarkable amount. Make no mistake – we are punching above our weight. The BBC recently reported research showing that three quarters of our manifesto is being delivered in government – more than the Conservative manifesto. Not bad given we have just eight percent of the MPs in Westminster. And our liberal voice is loud and clear.
On the NHS – your vote at spring conference in Sheffield were carried into the corridors of Whitehall, resulting in real change. On Rupert Murdoch – Liberal Democrats have been in the lead, taking on the vested interests in the media. On human rights – I am proud to stand up for one of the absolute cornerstones of our free, liberal society. This Coalition government has a distinct Liberal Democrat voice and you will hear it.
But we can’t have all our fights in public. While times are hard, while people are struggling, the last thing people want is to see the nation’s leaders squabbling and point scoring. That’s why I can’t tell you about every debate we have behind closed doors. But rest assured, we are fighting for Liberal values every day.
I’m also proud that we are proving that we can do things differently. That politicians of different parties can come together and put the country first. Remember before the General Election when we were being told a hung parliament would lead to chaos, that government would grind to a halt and the economy would fall off a cliff. Well it didn’t. We have proved the doubters wrong. We are proving, every day, that coalition politics works. As someone who has always believed in electoral reform, in pluralism, in the idea that people are better served if we look for common ground instead of tribal division, that makes me very proud.
We may not agree with everything our coalition partners say – they certainly don’t agree with everything I say – but that’s the point. We have not become the same and we never will. We are putting our differences aside and putting the country first.
These are tough times. If we had been able to choose when to enter government for the first time in nearly 70 years I doubt many of us would choose to do so in the hardest economic conditions in our lifetimes. But we can also be proud of what we are proving about ourselves.
We could have bottled it. We could have taken the easy way out, washed our hands of any responsibility and let the Conservatives deal with the mess on their own. We could have stood on the sidelines and watched a government that couldn’t even command a majority in the House of Commons try to tackle an economy teetering on the edge of a cliff. That would have been cowardly and it would have confirmed so many people’s worst suspicion about us – that when push comes to shove we’d prefer to shout from the sidelines than take responsibility. We didn’t do that. We did the right thing. We rose to the challenge. And we did it knowing it meant working with our political enemies and almost certain short-term unpopularity.
People can no longer claim we’re not up to the job. They can no longer say we don’t have it in us to put our necks on the line for the good of the country. We are proving every day that we are no longer a luxury vote or a protest vote or, worst of all, a wasted vote. We are proving that we can be trusted to govern – from the centre, for the people, for the whole nation. We are the only party that can honestly claim to represent the entire country – from Land’s End to John O’Groats – and we are proving we can put the whole country’s interests first. Taking the difficult decisions but making a positive difference to people’s lives too. Cutting taxes, not for the rich but for millions of people on low and middle incomes. Helping pensioners by restoring the earnings link. Creating a quarter of a million new apprenticeships. A political family doing this together, showing we have the courage of our convictions and creating a better country for our children.
In difficult times you need to know two things about your government: that it has the strength to take the decisions needed to fix the big problems; and that there are people in that government who are looking out for you. Those people are there. They’re in government and on your side. They’re called Liberal Democrats.