Ian Kearns: Why Liberal values are the answer this country needs

Ian Kearns joined the Liberal Democrats from Labour in the Summer. He gave a barnstorming speech to the rally at Federal Conference in Brighton. 

This Autumn, he has spoken at both the Yorkshire and London Regional Conferences. The speech below was the keynote speech at the Yorkshire and the Humber conference three weeks ago and Ian delivered a version of it at a fringe event at the London conference yesterday. 

The most powerful section of his speech is on what we stand for:

I’m here today because this is the party that is ready to fight the politics of division and hate, and I intend to be part of that fight.

I’m here because I know we won’t beat the extremists of left and right by mimicking their message or by defending the status quo, but only by radically extending the liberal commitment to equality of opportunity to the millions of people in our country currently denied it.

I’m here because I won’t stand idly by and watch the disaster of Brexit unfold.

We know the Leave campaign lied to the country; we know they’ve failed to deliver; and now the people must have a vote on the truth!

I’m here because our forebears didn’t see off the fascists in the last century so we could sit back and watch fascism rise again in this.

I’m here to fight for a patriotism that celebrates the divides we bridge and our achievements as a people, not for one that drives a wedge between one community or nation and another.

And I’m here because I want to look my children in the eye and know they have a good chance of a life of happiness and fulfilment in a country at peace with itself.

A country where they will be judged not by the colour of their skin, their race, religion, gender or sexuality but by the content of their character.

A country of free men and women where we all have equal rights and equal opportunities because if these rights and opportunities are denied to anyone, then none of us are truly free and our country is not truly free.

A country where politics is conducted in a civil manner, because between anarchy on the one hand, and the settlement of our political differences through violence on the other, liberal democratic politics is all there is; and the only ones who benefit from cynicism about politics are those with a vested interest in maintaining the status-quo.

I’m here too because I want my children to grow up in a country that doesn’t fear the outside world, but equips its people to go out into it, experience it in all its wonder, and work with others to shape it to humanity’s common cause.

A country where we take power out of the hands of bureaucrats in Whitehall, and put it into the hands of the people, who know what their challenges are and have good ideas on how to meet them.

A country that doesn’t fear new technology but becomes a world leading centre for the productive and ethical use of it.

And a country that was once the birthplace of the industrial revolution, seized by the climate emergency and geared up both economically and diplomatically to meet it with a new age of green revolution.

It’s powerful and inspiring stuff. Here’s the speech in full.

My name is Ian Kearns, and after many months of soul-searching, I joined the Liberal Democrats in June of this year, from Labour.

I am here today to tell you why.

Before I get to the substance and politics of the matter however, I want to preface my speech with one personal note. Paddy Ashdown, who I have known for many years, and whose illness was reported in newspapers recently, has always been an inspiration to me and he was instrumental, over the course of a number of private conversations, in me joining this party.

He has been an outstanding servant of the party, of his constituents, of this country, and of the international community for many years and I’m sure we all want to send him our best wishes for a speedy recovery today.

Politically, there are many reasons why I am here today as someone who left Labour and joined the Liberal Democrats and among them, these are just a few:
I’m here because I could no longer tolerate a Leader of the Opposition, a Leader of the Opposition (!), portraying himself as a great peace-maker while providing cover to anti-Semites and thugs.

I’m here because Corbyn’s attacks on NATO and his long-standing Euroscepticism are an insult to the generation of men and women who buried fascism on the battlefields of Europe, who came home to build a better Britain on the back of ideas from Liberals like Beveridge and Keynes, and who also had the genius to unite much of the continent in peace and progress afterwards.

I’m here because my idea of a national security strategy is not to question the findings of our own intelligence service by sending Novichok samples to Russia to ask Putin if they belong to him. As if he’s the one we can trust!

I’m here because I passionately believe our future lies in Europe and Labour under Corbyn is a Brexit supporting disaster in pursuit of a one nation socialism that didn’t work anywhere in the last century, and certainly has no place in this.

Be in no doubt: every promise in the Labour programme is worthless if Brexit happens, because you can’t invest in the public services or in the infrastructure we need as a country if the economy is in post-Brexit free-fall.

And be in no doubt also, that every Labour MP in this region and elsewhere who facilitates Brexit will forfeit their claim to represent the poor, because you can’t help the poor by being complicit in making them poorer.

But the Corbyn project isn’t about the poor, is it?

In recent weeks, unlike this party, Labour agreed to Philip Hammonds tax give away to the wealthy while failing to end the benefits freeze for the least well off.

This came on top of the 2017 Labour manifesto commitment to spend £11.2bn, by far the biggest spending commitment, on eliminating student fees for those still mostly from wealthier backgrounds while leaving welfare cuts in place, Sure Start Centres closed, and the social care system in crisis.

The Corbyn project isn’t radical. It’s cynical.

When you analyse it closely as I have done, you see it is an attempt to pour money into the pockets of the middle-class while ignoring the needs of the poor if that’s what it takes to get elected.

Now as you can imagine, I’ve had some criticism from former colleagues in the Labour Party for pointing these truths out and for joining the Liberal Democrats.

How could you do it, they ask? How could you join a party that introduced austerity?

Some of this comes from the non-Corbyn wing of the Labour Party too.

What I say to this criticism publicly now, is what I said to party members privately for some time before I left, and it is this:

A bit of humility from the Labour Party wouldn’t go amiss.

It was Labour that ran an economy fuelled on debt.

It was Labour that cosied up to the bankers; de-regulated them, and didn’t understand the risks that were being run.

The financial crisis happened on Labour’s watch, they’ve never fully taken responsibility for it and we’re still coping with the consequences now.

It was Labour that left notes in the Treasury to say there was no more money.

It was Labour that failed to introduce transitional controls on EU migration, as allowed under the European Treaties, and that helped radicalise some parts of the country against the EU as a result;

And it was the Labour government, of course, that invaded Iraq.

So this Liberal Democrat won’t be taking any lectures, and nor should any of you, from the Labour Party on our respective records while in office.

But politics isn’t primarily about yesterday. It’s about today and, even more importantly, tomorrow.

Today, it is becoming increasingly clear that this is no ordinary period in history and no ordinary time in politics.

We face the most serious conditions of domestic and international crisis in my lifetime, and perhaps since the 1930s.

Globally, we are the first generation to know we are destroying the planet and the last generation that will have a chance to do something about it before it is too late. There is no Planet B for us to fall back on.

The President of the United States is pulling out of nuclear arms agreements negotiated in the Cold War and threatening to trigger a new nuclear arms race as a result;

The European Union is being assailed by new age fascists in the form of Marine Le Pen, Matteo Salvini and Viktor Orban.

And all the while, Steve Bannon walks the earth, openly creating an Illiberal International.

From Trump on trade to Farage on Brexit and Salvini on migration, the far-right seeks to undermine the institutions of international cooperation, calculating that chaos abroad will make it easier for them to sell the politics of division and fear at home.

And everywhere, a concerted effort is being made to bury the truth under a preposterous mountain of lies.

In our own country, far right figures like Tommy Robinson are being made respectable with American money, so he can peddle his particular brand of Islamophobic hate.

A young MP has been murdered on the streets of her own constituency.

Many more receive death threats and a constant correspondence of hate.

Political opponents are branded as traitors.

And anyone who looks different or sounds different is vulnerable to verbal and physical abuse. Just in the last few weeks, a woman was punched in the face on a train in London for the apparent crime of speaking Spanish.

For the first time in decades, many parents believe their children will have a worse life than they themselves have enjoyed.

The wages of our citizens stagnate; many poorly paid jobs are insecure; social mobility has ground to a halt; and the concept of equality of opportunity seems like a sick joke to the vast majority.

And we live not in a United but a Disunited Kingdom where the north is pitted against the south, the rich against the poor, the young against the old, the Scots against the English; black against white, and anti-Semitic or Islamophobic racist against the rest of us.

And what is our response as a country?

A Prime Minister who points to burning injustices and then watches them burn.

A Chancellor with a budget statement in which climate change isn’t mentioned: not even once.

A Cabinet with no vision capable of unifying the country in common purpose.

A governing party riven by Brexit, and a portion of which is so dogmatic in its pursuit that any price, even peace in Northern Ireland, is seen as worth paying to achieve it.

No wonder the Tory MP, Johnny Mercer, described his own government as a shit-show.

And then there is Labour, consumed with an anti-Semitism crisis; failing to oppose Brexit; and focused on internal struggles over MP deselections.

It would be easy to give in to despair in this context.

It would be easy to say the problems are too large for us to impact on them.

And it would be easy, as Liberal Democrats, to say we are too small a party to lead the fightback.

But we don’t have the option of despair.

And we can’t afford to be demoralised or to fall prey to defeatism.

Because the stakes are just too high.

Why the Liberal Democrats?

I have been asked many times in recent months why I joined the Liberal Democrats but the truth is I’m embarrassed it took me so long to do it.

As Liberal Democrats, as you all know, we define our purpose thus:

‘to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no-one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity.’

I would put it to you that in the political context I have just outlined, these words are a thing of beauty.

They were the beacon that drew me in.

So, let me be clear.

I’m here today because this is the party that is ready to fight the politics of division and hate, and I intend to be part of that fight.

I’m here because I know we won’t beat the extremists of left and right by mimicking their message or by defending the status quo, but only by radically extending the liberal commitment to equality of opportunity to the millions of people in our country currently denied it.

I’m here because I won’t stand idly by and watch the disaster of Brexit unfold.

We know the Leave campaign lied to the country; we know they’ve failed to deliver; and now the people must have a vote on the truth!

I’m here because our forebears didn’t see off the fascists in the last century so we could sit back and watch fascism rise again in this.

I’m here to fight for a patriotism that celebrates the divides we bridge and our achievements as a people, not for one that drives a wedge between one community or nation and another.

And I’m here because I want to look my children in the eye and know they have a good chance of a life of happiness and fulfilment in a country at peace with itself.

A country where they will be judged not by the colour of their skin, their race, religion, gender or sexuality but by the content of their character.

A country of free men and women where we all have equal rights and equal opportunities because if these rights and opportunities are denied to anyone, then none of us are truly free and our country is not truly free.

A country where politics is conducted in a civil manner, because between anarchy on the one hand, and the settlement of our political differences through violence on the other, liberal democratic politics is all there is; and the only ones who benefit from cynicism about politics are those with a vested interest in maintaining the status-quo.

I’m here too because I want my children to grow up in a country that doesn’t fear the outside world, but equips its people to go out into it, experience it in all its wonder, and work with others to shape it to humanity’s common cause.

A country where we take power out of the hands of bureaucrats in Whitehall, and put it into the hands of the people, who know what their challenges are and have good ideas on how to meet them.

A country that doesn’t fear new technology but becomes a world leading centre for the productive and ethical use of it.

And a country that was once the birthplace of the industrial revolution, seized by the climate emergency and geared up both economically and diplomatically to meet it with a new age of green revolution.

Conference, I am proud to stand with all of you because I know you share these values and aspirations.

And as we move forward from here, and as you go about your activism in your own communities, I would urge you all to be fortified by these now all too self-evident truths:

That if we in this party don’t respond to the current crisis then no-one is going to do it.

That if we in this party don’t safeguard liberty then no-one will.

That if we don’t offer a visionary and unifying politics of hope then a generation will be lost to the politics of fear.

That if we don’t fight for diversity and tolerance in our society then no-one will and we’ll be enslaved by authoritarian conformity.

And if we don’t fight for truth, our children and grand-children will grow up in a new Dark Age of lies.

I, like you, am under no illusion that we have a mountain to climb.

But one thing I am confident of is this:

Liberal values are the answer.

You are the answer.

And together, our job now is to heed the call of history, and to make this party the answer.

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9 Comments

  • Michael Cole 25th Nov '18 - 1:38pm

    Thank you Ian Kearns for a truly inspiring speech.

  • Excellent speech – being passionate about our Liberalism is something we need to more of to show the electorate that another and better way is possible.

  • David Warren 25th Nov '18 - 6:55pm

    As long as Corbyn remains Labour leader that party will be totally divided.

    That presents us liberals with a real opportunity.

  • nigel hunter 25th Nov '18 - 7:32pm

    Is this a future leader in waiting?
    Can this speech be circulated more widely?

  • Steve Trevethan 25th Nov '18 - 11:02pm

    Perhaps this speech is stronger on emotion than analysis?
    Perhaps this speech inadvertently shows that, when the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties have actual governmental power, they serve the financial and military constituencies ahead of that of the general public?

  • I don’t know about Rory Bremner but I was reminded in reading the article, and imagining the applause, of a passage (no pun intended), on a similar speech in a wonderful book..

    Rewritten here with apologies to Kenneth Grahame…

    “The noise, as they emerged from the passage, was simply deafening. At last, as the cheering and hammering slowly subsided, a voice could be made out saying, “Well, I do not propose to detain you much longer”—(great applause)—”but before I resume my seat”—(renewed cheering)—”I should like to say one word about Labour. We all know Labour!”—(great laughter)—”Good Labour, modest Labour, honest Labour!” (shrieks of merriment).

    “Only just let me get at him!” muttered Toad, grinding his teeth.

    “Hold hard a minute!” said the Badger, restraining him with difficulty. “Get ready, all of you!”

    “—Let me sing you a little song,” went on the voice, “which I have composed on the subject of Labour”—(prolonged applause).

    Then the Chief Weasel—for it was he—began in a high, squeaky voice—

    “Corbyn he went a-pleasuring
    Gaily down the street—”

  • A very fine speech which was followed at the Sheffield conference by a good Q&A with questions – mine on foreign policy, another on education – where Ian gave very strong answers; supporting party policy but adding more that we could do and say, to be the party that meets the challenge.

  • Peter Hirst 27th Nov '18 - 2:03pm

    I would love our country to be seen as one that embraces diversity and free movement but recent experience shows it is far from a done deal. I believe we are a tolerant country but like most things there are limits. We must as a Party show we understand where those who voted for Brexit are and have policies that underline our commitment to them.

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