Nick’s conference speech: “When our opponents tell us we are finished, remember Eastleigh!”

Here’s the text of Nick Clegg’s speech at the start of the Spring Conference Rally in Brighton tonight:

I know it is unusual for me to speak at the start of the rally but there’s an issue I want to address head on.

Today is International Women’s Day. It is right that we come together as a party to celebrate the life changing advances in women’s rights both at home and around the world. Advances that Liberal Democrats championed in opposition and are delivering in Government.

But it is also right that – following the events of recent weeks – we take a long, hard look in the mirror. No doubt you will be aware of the recent allegations that have been made about sexual harassment in our party. I won’t talk about the specific allegations. They will be investigated thoroughly and independently and we must respect due process. And we must remember that due process is for the accused as well as the accusers.

But I do want to talk about the other side of this. The fact that the women involved feel let down. They deserved to have their concerns and allegations examined thoroughly and properly dealt with. But clearly, that has not always been the case.

When concerns were brought to the attention of members of my team we acted to address them. But this should not have just been the responsibility of a few individuals acting with the best of intentions. It must be the responsibility of the party as a whole to make sure we have the processes and support structures in place now and in the future.

We didn’t, and as a result we let people down. Liberal Democrats, that is not acceptable to me.

For a party that cherishes equality and women’s rights, we have no excuse for failing to live up to the highest standards in the treatment of women. The standards we – rightly – expect of others.

I joined this party because I believe in empowerment; freedom; dignity. I believe that, where an individual feels that they have been badly treated, or that power has been abused, they must have confidence that those concerns will be properly addressed.

That’s why we have set up two inquiries. The first to look at the allegations that have been made, led by Alistair Webster QC. And the second, independent inquiry, to look at our party’s procedures, organisational culture and how allegations made in the past have been handled.

We announced earlier today that this will be led by Helena Morrissey – who is known for her unmatched expertise in pushing equality and diversity at the top of the corporate world. And I will personally put in place whatever additional safeguards are needed.

In the meantime, we have set up a whistle-blower hotline, run by Public Concern at Work, for those who have information to come forward and to receive confidential advice. We have made counselling services available for those in need of support. And we will of course co-operate with the police if and when appropriate.

I will drive whatever changes are necessary to stop this ever happening again.

From now on, if you feel you have been a victim of harassment, it will be easy and straightforward to report it. And if you report it, it will be investigated fully and acted on effectively.

But the lessons we must learn are not just about the rules and processes we must put in place. This is about something bigger than that. It is about the way we conduct ourselves. It’s about treating one another with respect.

Sexism must have no place in the Liberal Democrats. Harassment must have no place in the Liberal Democrats. Abuse of power and position must have no place in the Liberal Democrats.

I won’t tolerate it. Our party should be better than that.

It is often said that Westminster is an old boy’s club. It is. Parliament is stuffed full, in both the Commons and Lords, of hundreds and hundreds of men and precious few women. Men outnumber women by nearly four to one.

Too often, barriers are put in front of talented and committed women to stop them progressing. It’s a male world, made by men for men, occupied for centuries by men and designed to work to the advantage of men. And Westminster is far from the only boy’s club in our country.

In business, in the legal profession, in journalism and in countless workplaces up and down the country, men dominate and men make the rules. Where the man at the next desk does the same job as you but gets paid more. Where you’re in a meeting full of men and you’re treated like your voice doesn’t count. Where you want to progress in your career but know that starting a family will make it impossible to get ahead.

In 21st century Britain there are glass ceilings for women everywhere you look. The loss of talent is immense. Our economy, and more importantly our entire society, misses out.

We need a culture change, in Westminster and beyond. If we want to lead that change then we have to set an example.

I am proud of what the Liberal Democrats are doing to make our country and our world a place where all women can have the same opportunities as men. The Liberal Democrats are building a stronger economy. To do that we need to harness the talents of women across the country.

And we are building a fairer society – where women are free to realise their potential.

Modern empowerment is about creating choices and spreading opportunity. This April, we will have cut taxes for millions of working people by £600, by raising the point at which you start paying Income Tax.

And because women are disproportionately in part-time work and low-paid jobs, it is women who benefit the most: as of this April, 1.3m women on low pay will no longer pay Income Tax at all.

We are levelling the playing field by introducing shared parental leave and flexible working – policies Liberal Democrats have campaigned on for years.

And they can be transformative. Right now, if a young couple are expecting a baby and they sit down to discuss how they will balance work and home. A life changing experience boils down to basic sums: How will we manage our income? How much will bills cost? How many hours do we need to work and where does childcare fit in?

And it’s an equation where the answer is so often rigged because, whichever way you look at it, the solution ends up being the mother doing more of the caring, and the father doing more of the earning – even if that isn’t what the young couple wants.

She gets the year-long maternity leave; after that, the expectation is she’ll continue to be the primary carer – so she’s the one who goes part-time. Lower pay, fewer shots at promotion. Work less, earn less.

It’s heartbreaking to watch women who feel forced to lower their ambitions for themselves. And it’s heartbreaking to see fathers missing out on being with their children.
As a father, I find the outdated assumption that men should go out and work and women should stay at home and look after the children frankly absurd.

So we are giving mothers and fathers more choice to decide for themselves how to balance their families and their careers. And we’re helping parents with childcare, with more free early years education for all three and four-year-olds and for two-year-olds from lower income families.

That’s not all we’re doing.

At the top of our biggest companies, Vince Cable is pushing for greater and greater female representation in the boardroom. And he’s getting results – there are now only seven FTSE 100 companies with all-male boards, down from 21 in 2010.

That’s important progress, but we have to keep up momentum. There was some worrying evidence reported today, which warns this may have stalled. And Lord Davies is right to say that, if we don’t make sufficient progress in the future, we may need to move to a more direct approach, like quotas.

For those whose working life is over we are levelling the playing field too. A generous new flat rate pension – designed and delivered by Steve Webb – means that women will no longer be punished in retirement for taking time out of their working lives to raise children or care for relatives.

We are creating a safer society for women, with measures to tackle domestic violence, forced marriage and stalking. And tonight, you’ll hear from Lynne Featherstone how we have put lifting women and girls out of poverty at the heart of our international aid policy.

Lynne and I recently visited a dusty, old school in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, to see how an aid scheme to fund girls’ education that I announced in 2011 – the biggest of its kind ever – was being put into practice. The children travelled from miles and miles around to get to the school.

And despite the poverty, despite the conditions, the young girls we met there dreamed big. Every single one of them wanted to be an engineer, or a doctor, or a lawyer. One even said she wanted to be Prime Minister. I said I had no doubt she could achieve it.

To think that girls like those Lynne and I met in Ethiopia might have their ambitions crushed just because they are girls – that they might die younger and live their lives in poverty and servitude – is devastating.

In Ethiopia, fewer than one in six girls go to secondary school. And we know the difference education can make to their lives. Girls who are educated will earn more. They are more likely to marry later. They are more likely to get themselves and their babies immunised against fatal diseases and those who have a secondary education are three times less likely to be HIV positive.

To meet them, to hear their stories and their ambitions, brings home the difference we – the Liberal Democrats – can make to their lives. At home and abroad, the Liberal Democrats are helping women take more control over their careers, their money and their lives.

But there is one area where we have not provided enough opportunity for women – in our own ranks. We need more female councillors, assembly members, MSPs and MEPs. And we need more women Liberal Democrats MPs.

I’m proud that we’ve already selected Julia Cambridge in Chesterfield, Claire Thomas in Hull, and Judith Bunting in Newbury. I’m proud that Layla Moran, who spoke so passionately and eloquently at our last conference rally in Brighton, was the first of our Leadership Programme candidates to be selected in Oxford West and Abingdon.

And you’ll hear from another of our fantastic female Leadership Programme candidates, Sarah Yong, this evening. I know she’ll be hugely impressive on stage tonight. But she’ll be even more impressive when she’s in Parliament.

Our job now is to get these women, and those we select in the coming months, elected. And my challenge to you – in every selection committee you sit on, with every candidate you support and every vote you cast – is to consider how you can help us change for the better.

When I speak to our leadership programme candidates I know that the future of our party is bright. When I saw the huge numbers of young people pile through the doors of our HQ in Eastleigh, I could see that the future of our party is bright.

We must be a more diverse party. And we will be a better party for it.

It now gives me great pleasure to introduce someone who has smashed more glass ceilings and done more for women in our politics and our party than just about anyone – Shirley Williams.

Last weekend we passed a milestone for our party – our 25th anniversary. A quarter of a century since the Liberal Party and the SDP merged and the Liberal Democrats were created. We have come a very long way.

So many times in those two and a half decades we have been written off. But every time we confounded our critics. The history of the Liberal Democrats is marked with elections we were not supposed to win: Eastbourne; Ribble Valley; Kincardine and Deeside; Newbury; Christchurch; Eastleigh (the first time); Littleborough and Saddleworth; Winchester; Romsey; Brent East; Leicester South; Dunfermline and West Fife.

So how better to mark that milestone – to celebrate our birthday – than by doing what we have done over and over when the chips were down: win a crucial by-election.

What we did eight days ago was remarkable. People said that by joining the Coalition we would lose our identity, our soul. That it would make it impossible to win elections in our own right. Some said that we were finished.

We proved, once again, you should never write off the Liberal Democrats. But it wasn’t just about last Thursday.

For the three weeks beforehand, hundreds and hundreds of you turned out day after day, rain or shine, to make sure we won. We smashed our own by-election records left, right and centre:

– More volunteers through the door every day than ever before;
– More phone calls, from all over the country, than ever before;
– More donations from individuals than ever before.

What was especially exciting was how many young people took part in the campaign – many of whom were not even born 25 years ago. Everyone who came to Eastleigh saw the enthusiasm, the energy and the vibrancy of our campaign.

I want to thank every single one of you for all your effort and commitment. I want to thank Keith House and his formidable Eastleigh team. Victoria Marsom, our superb campaign manager, and Hilary Stephenson, our deputy chief executive. Two brilliant women who masterminded our by-election campaign. And, of course, our new MP for Eastleigh – Mike Thornton.

The unspoken story of the last year has been that Liberal Democrats are winning again. In council by-elections in every corner of the country, Conservative-facing and Labour-facing, we have been making gain after gain after gain.

Last year, contrary to the impression you’d get from the media, we actually made an overall gain at council by-elections. And then came Eastleigh.

It was not a campaign we wanted to have to fight. The circumstances that caused it were not ones we would ever have wished for. But we dusted ourselves off and we said bring it on. Our opponents threw everything they had at us. Controversy dominated the headlines. And yet, despite all that, we won.

Now no one can be in any doubt: the Liberal Democrats are winning again. And we won’t stop here.

This May, we have county council elections across England. Many, once again, in areas where our principle rivals are the Conservatives. We showed in Eastleigh what we have always known – where we work we win.

So take nothing for granted. Work, work and work some more. If you do, we can and will win. In Eastleigh we showed something else too. We have a fantastic record locally – cutting council tax, creating jobs and protecting green spaces.

And we have a fantastic record nationally – cutting people’s taxes, boosting the state pension, more money for schools, and creating more apprenticeships than ever before.

In Eastleigh, we didn’t shy away from being in government, we embraced it and we campaigned on it with confidence. Every leaflet had a local message and a national message.

We won not in spite of being in power, we won because we are in power – locally and nationally.

I heard, shortly after the result, the Conservative Party Chairman Grant Shapps explaining that the Conservatives lost Eastleigh because governing parties don’t win mid-term by-elections. I know denial can be a powerful thing, but he seemed to have missed entirely what happened.

Well, Grant Shapps I’ve got news for you. The Conservatives might not be able to win by-elections when they’re in government. But the Liberal Democrats can. So when you speak to people ahead of May’s elections, tell them what you are doing for them and their community locally.

And tell them what we are doing nationally. Tell them how we are building a stronger economy and a fairer society, enabling everyone to get on in life. Tell them what we are doing and they will respond.

And when our opponents tell us we are finished, remember Eastleigh. Remember what we did, together, for three weeks in February. Remember the buzz, and the enthusiasm. Remember how it felt when the result was announced.

When people tell you we don’t have a chance, tell them: The Liberal Democrats are winning again.

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This entry was posted in Conference.


  • Simon Beard 8th Mar '13 - 8:14pm

    Not a word on Secret Courts…

    …are they really that secret already?

  • Peter Watson 8th Mar '13 - 9:54pm

    The Eastleigh stuff seems a bit over-the-top. It started as a two-horse race between the coalition partners who both lost support compared with 2010. It was a Lib Dem hold, not a gain. And can the Lib Dems get that all those activists to many seats in 2015.
    And as for the flowery prose about cherishing equality and women’s rights, can anybody remember which of the major parties (and minor ones) has the smallest proportion of women MPs. (Hint: ours). Lib Dems should be leading by example and deed, not by soundbites.
    I’m sure Clegg’s presentation of the speech was as impressive as ever, but reading it above leaves me completely underwhelmed.

  • John Heyworth 9th Mar '13 - 9:56am

    Nick Clegg: “The history of the Liberal Democrats is marked with elections we were not supposed to win: Eastbourne; Ribble Valley; Kincardine and Deeside; Newbury; Christchurch; Eastleigh (the first time); Littleborough and Saddleworth; Winchester; Romsey; Brent East; Leicester South; Dunfermline and West Fife.”
    The reality is that after winning the byelection we inevitably LOSE the same seat at the next General Election (with notable exceptions). Swamping a seat with hundreds of nutters, sorry grassroot activists, for a one off election is easy, fighting a seat as a local party in isolation a year or so later is much harder! Factor in the fact the new MP hasn’t had the time to prove themselves in the HoC and you are in a no win situation. Perhaps the Party needs to make such seats top priority in subsequent elections.

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