You know, making this speech today gives me a strong sense of déjà vu. I gave a speech at the Conference here in Brighton, right after the last time we won a by election in Eastleigh!
Some things haven’t changed. Orange diamonds. Fighting against the odds, Simon Hughes. But one big thing has changed. We were a Party of Opposition then. We’re a party of government now.
And that changes everything.
Last year Nick Clegg asked me to chair the general election campaign. I said I would – for one very simple reason. Because I don’t want being in government, to be a blip for the Liberal Democrats.
I want it to become a habit. Liberals waited have waited a hundred years for May 2010. And I dreamt every hour of my Leadership of our Party, that one day we would have the opportunity to be where we are now, in Government; making a difference.
What else are we in politics for, if not to be prepared to take the responsibilities of power, so we can benefit those we serve with Government informed by the principles we believe in.
I don’t want have to wait for that opportunity again. Apart from everything else, at my age I can’t afford to!
But, and here’s the rub. You can’t change a country overnight. You can’t deliver on the liberal promise just in one Government. It takes time.
And that’s why, at the next election, we can and we must ensure that we have the votes and seats to continue the job we have, with such courage, started together. That depends – of course it does – on what we do in Westminster.
But it also depends on what you do in your communities and your Constituencies. You see the true force of our party lies in our grass roots – in you. My job in the next two and a half years is to work with you to channel all that force toward one simple goal: winning.
Winning votes. Winning seats. Winning hearts.
I was not born a Liberal. I became one nearly 40 years ago. When a man in a bobble hat knocked on my door and asked for my vote. To be honest I told him I wasn’t interested. I was fed up with all politicians. But he was insistent. So I told him if he could persuade me Liberalism was different, he could have my vote.
What happened next, changed my life.
What he said was a million miles from the paternalism of the two then dominant parties that had so spectacularly failed 1970s Britain. The state socialism of the Labour party. The casual and heartless incompetence of the Conservatives.
He convinced me there was something different. A vision that has driven our party and its predecessors for more than 150 years. The Liberal promise to enable and empower every citizen – to fulfil their potential – regardless of wealth, or gender, or colour or creed.
To enable them to be who they want to be. In truth, he had me after the first few sentences. And the rest is history. I didn’t just vote, I joined, hot elected and became the leader.
Just like that. Well, what else did you expect?
Of course then, as now, as you know. it wasn’t like that. I had to give up my job, was twice unemployed. I wasn’t elected the PPC – I was the only one foolish enough to put my name forward. We were third.
The Tories had held the seat for seventy years. They didn’t count their votes they weighed them. Our membership was five – and their average age – was deceased.
It took us eight years hard campaigning to win Yeovil. Leaflets delivered. Doors knocked on. Teams built. Campaigns launched. Some wins – more defeats. Then more of all the above. And finally, thanks to those who joined us and believed in what we were doing – a great victory won.
So, if you ever wonder over the next few years as I am coaxing, cajoling, even perhaps trying to compel you. When you are dead on your feet but I need you to get out and sign up more members and deliverers. Or knock on another 100 doors. Or deliver another 1,000 leaflets. Well, if you want to know who to blame. Not me: you can blame that modest man in a bobble hat who went out one evening in the dark and the cold and knocked on somebody’s door with a message of hope.
A modest man who had immodest ambitions for our party and our country. Summed up in the simple, liberal demand that every citizen should be enabled to live their lives to the full.
Over the next 798 days until the general election I need you to be as immodest and determined in your ambitions for our party as he was – and I became.
So, when you are looking down a canvass board of names and addresses, on a dark night, in the cold, with the rain falling. When you might feel tempted to skip the last page and nip back for a cup of tea, or round the corner for a pint. Don’t.
You never know whose door you will knock on next. It might be the next Nick Clegg. The next Kirsty Williams. The next Willie Rennie. The next Vince Cable…. Naah!
There’ll only ever be one Vince Cable – at least Mr Cameron hopes so.
But more important than all of these – it might be the one last vote you need to win. You know, I’m sure that you, like me, have often told children and grandchildren that it’s not the winning that matters, it’s the taking part.
Well let me let you into a little secret. That’s bollocks.
After 70 years in opposition and less than three in government, one thing is clearer to me than ever. Winning matters.
In opposition we can talk about our historic mission. Only in government, can we deliver on it.
I looked back at that speech I made in 1994, after the first Eastleigh by election. I’m sure every word is burned into the memory of those of you who were there. But for those of you who weren’t here’s what I said.
“Our aim is nothing less than to overthrow the paternalism which has ruled the destinies of the British people, under both Conservative and Labour.
“To shatter a system which presumes that governments know best – and replace it with the dangerous… doctrine that it is people who know best.
“To put power back where it belongs, in the towns, in the cities, in the regions and in the nations of our United Kingdom.
“To overturn the barriers that still stand in the way of 52% of our population – to liberate the potential of the women of this country.
“To release the energy of the tens of millions who are shut out from the decisions which affect their lives.
“There can be no regeneration of Britain – neither economic, nor social, nor political – unless people take back from the system the power that is rightfully theirs.”
Here’s how I concluded that speech: “The historic role of this Party – of we Liberal Democrats – is to make that possible. To rediscover the latent energy of our country. To give everybody a chance to be a somebody. To see our people flourish with a government that is their servant, not their master. To let us – each of us – become a responsible citizen, not a resentful subject.”
I believed that with every fibre of my being when I said it twenty years ago. And I still do.
You see, Liberal Democrats are the grit in the oyster of British politics. And just like the grit: you’ve got to be on the inside to do your job. From opposition you can talk about changing Britain.
Only in government can you change it. We know that, because in Government we have changed it. And that fact – that single fact – makes this coming election different from any other we have fought for a hundred years.
For almost all the years of the Twentieth century, the Liberal Democrats and the Liberals before us, have fought General Elections as the outsiders.
We can never do so again.
Now we stand before the electorate, not as outsiders but as one of the three Parties bidding to govern of our country.
That means our enemies will come for us, if we give them the opportunity – as we have seen these last few weeks. It means no promises unless we can be sure to deliver them.
It means an election campaign which will have to be tighter, tougher, taughter and more disciplined.
It means being clear about our core message – the message we have set out out at this Conference. And saying it again and again and again.
And here it is again: To build a stronger economy in a fairer society, enabling everyone to get on in life.
And that’s why you are so important.
You are the link of this party. You are its voice.
That core message describes who we are, and what we do both nationally and locally It sums up our offer in government at every level. But it will only work, if everyone of us gives voice to it, everywhere, all the time.
Through our leaflets, our tweets, our blogs, in the Council Chamber and the TV studio and the radio interview and of course, most important of all in what we say to people when we meet them, in the street and on the doorstep…
Here’s a prediction. If we all do this right you’ll soon be bored with it. Tough.
For its only when you have repeated this message so often that you’re sick of it, that our voters out there will be starting to hear it. At every level – in your street, in your community, in your town, in our country – our objective is simple and straightforward:
To build a stronger economy in a fairer society. So we can deliver on the liberal mission of enabling every person to get on in life.
And here’s something to help us. This time, we don’t have to rely on a promise of what we will do. We can look at the record of what we have already done. Lowering taxes for millions of ordinary people while making sure that the richest pay a greater share.
Investing in all our children’s futures through a £2.5 billion Pupil Premium; increasing child care provision for millions of families; delivering the largest cash rise in the pension ever and radically reforming the whole system through Steve Webb’s single tier pension.
Establishing the world’s first green investment bank. Taking power away from Westminster and putting it closer to the people. A new deal for Cities, giving new powers to local government up and down the country. A million newly qualified apprentices.
Let me tell you what this means for you. Now and for the first time, you can twin a
local message of achievement you can be proud of, with a national message of achievement to be proud of too.
That’s what we did in Eastleigh; its one of the reasons we won in Eastleigh – telling people again and again about our local and our national achievements. And its what we have to do in our leaflets and on the door step this coming May, in the elections next year and in the build up to the General Election beyond.
In the immortal words of our much beloved and missed David Penhaligon: “If you’ve got something to say, put it on a piece of paper and stick it through a letterbox.”
Well now we have lots to say. So its time to get out there again, saying it. And when we do, we win.
Not just in Eastleigh. Since last November out of 77 by-election contests ask yourselves how many seats have we gained and how many seats have we lost. Well here’s the good news – we’ve gained 11. and now for the great news, we’ve lost … Well none actually not a blinking sausage.
Now don’t be deceived. None of this means its going to be easy, from where we are now. It isn’t. But then it never has been. We have been here before – you and I. When we refused to accept the conventional wisdom.
When we defied the odds and fought our way back from almost nothing to govern great swathes of Britain at the local level. And eventually to almost double our seats in Parliament in a single election.
I’m not going to gloss this. In some ways what’s ahead is more difficult than it was then; with the legacy of Labour’s economic disaster to overcome, with Tory heartlessness to fight, and tough decisions to take in Government.
But in some ways its easier, too. Now we have a message which is clear. A record in Government to be proud of. And an outstanding team of Ministers who easily outshine anything the other Parties can offer.
Tough. Tested. Strong. Don’t take my word for it.
Listen to this journalist writing on Eastliegh in the Telegraph last week: “I’ve been struck by…. the impressive Lib Dem machine in the seat. It’s not just the councilors……though they matter a lot.
It’s the organisation. It’s the volunteers. It’s the “sheer bloody resilience”. As one Tory put it earlier this week: “They just won’t lie down and die.”
Too bloody right, we won’t.
So lets hear it for fantastic Eastleigh team, for a superb candidate, now MP, for the hard work of so many outstanding Councillors, for our campaign team led by Hilary and Victoria and for all those hundreds – thousands – who answered the call and delivered for us a great victory against the odds.
That’s what our Party’s made us and that’s why we are proud to be Liberal Democrats.
And that is why I know today with the same confidence that I knew 20 years ago that at the next election we are going to defy the odds again. We have a hell of a fight on our hands.
But that’s OK. I like a good fight And I know you do too.
You are the engine which drives this Party; you are its force and its most important asset. I know that if we can together unleash that energy – as we have done in difficult times before, as we did just a week ago in Eastleigh, then there is nothing that is impossible for us. So I am going to make no apologies for driving us all very hard these next two years.
And you know why? Because the message of Eastleigh is very clear – and we know it very well. Where we work, we win. And I am determined that we will win so you had better get working!
If you do, then I promise you there are great victories ahead. Good campaigning and good luck.
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