Sal Brinton’s Presidential address to Conference

Here is the text of Sal Brinton’s Presidential address to Conference. She talked about the threat to our democracy from the Tories’ massive spending on election campaigning and their plans for boundary changes. She talked about getting the party in the right shape for that fightback, to “give our country a democracy that works for all’. Here’s her speech in full:


The last couple of years have shown us that traditional assumptions about politics are useless.

Our world is being turned upside down, and,  unpredictable even to the pundits.

So much so that Lloyd George’s famous comment “The world is becoming like a lunatic asylum run by the lunatics”. That was over 110 years ago – perhaps some things never change!

We faced our hardest results in decades on 7 May, made much harder in recent weeks by watching  David Cameron and the Tories undoing many of the things that we achieved in Government.

A large number of people – not just Lib Dems – have said to me that they now understand what we did in Parliament as the Tories undo them, one by one.  The shock of losing so many colleagues has been compounded by the Tories making cuts to the most vulnerable in our society.  

But we also have to look at Labour, and how their leadership campaign over the last four months has resulted in an astonishing mandate for Jeremy Corbyn and a real shock to the whole Labour movement as it tries to work out its own values.

I’ve decried the right-left paradigm in politics for as long as I can remember. For me it has always been about liberal versus authoritarian axis. But this time last week, in the space of a short announcement, the Labour party raced from the centre ground in British politics to the far left.

The May result shows, once again, how our voting system is broken.

Whatever one thinks of their policies, UKIP with close to 4 million votes have just 1 MP and the Greens with  over 1million votes, also just one.

Our 2.5m votes gave us just 8 MPs, just over 300,000 per seat.

Contrast that with the 34,000 per Tory seat and 40,000 per Labour seat.  Both still have so many safe seats that it skews their behaviour in elections but also makes the public sceptical about politics.

Proportional Representation is the start – an absolute base line necessity. And if we can’t get it for Westminster yet, we must continue to fight for it for local government in England and Wales.

But there are other, more worrying more fundamental issues affecting our democracy today.

The Tories may still be the nasty party in policy terms – savage cuts to welfare & tax credits, and their appalling attitude towards asylum seekers and refugees.

And thank you Tim, for your clear stance on what you and we stand for on the dreadful refugee and asylum crisis facing Europe. You called out David Cameron’s language on the “swarm of migrants” and reminded us all that these are real people, fleeing for their lives, their safety, and many dying in the attempt.

But the Tories are also a nasty party in the political world too.

Be under no illusion that their proposed reduction of MPs from 650 to 600 is aimed at killing of the chance of power for the Labour party. Yes, we need some rebalancing of constituency sizes, but their proposals go way beyond this.

Be under no illusion that they want to kill off any opposition:  UKIP and us as well.

All of this is because of their belief in their fundamental right to rule at all costs.

And costs is an apt description.

In the late 90s everyone agreed that money spent in elections in local areas needed to be evened out so that the rich couldn’t buy seats – which was, of course, one of the reasons for the Great Reform Act of 1834.

The Political Parties Elections and Referendums Act 2000 (PPERA) set out local spending by local candidates. But the Tories have blown that to the winds. They have found the way round these limits, and it is legal.

In their target seats they have spent enormous amounts of money on direct mail from David Cameron, spending at a level that no other party can match, which make the local limit a joke.

If, like me, you are a Lib Dem because you believe we have to change people’s lives for better, and, frankly, to change politics and our democracy too, then hold on to Thomas Paine’s clarion call: “We have it within our power to begin our world over again”.

Let me say that again.

WE have it within OUR power to begin our world over again.

I’m not going to suggest we are living in quite the same revolutionary times that he embraced, but I do believe we are in the democratic equivalent today.

Are you prepared to let the Tories move to a democracy where the party raising the most money wins the election?

Are you prepared to let the Tories take us back not to a two party state, but a one party state with all the power and the establishment permanently at its disposal?

Are you prepared to sink into a slough of despond that the Tories believe will kill us off?

Well, I’m not. And I don’t think you are either.

We have to leave Labour to sort themselves out. Good luck to them as they try to make themselves a more democratic party internally. In the brief week since Jeremy Corbyn became Leader they are discovering that whilst people like the idea of the unspun hero, they aren’t sure about how attractive some of it is. [This needs work!]

Yes, the public are sick and tired of the old politics.

There’s only one party ready and willing to give them a new approach

There’s one party with a Leader not afraid to take on the establishment and call them out on their inhumanity – Tim Farron!

There’s one party with grassroots campaigning at its heart because it believes, above all else, that, as John Stuart Mill said “the worth of a state, in the long run, is the worth of the individuals comprising it”.

The Liberal Democrats is that party.

We’ve shown in the brief months since the General Election that we can fight and win again. Stunning election successes in Carshalton, in Wrexham and many other places.

But we also have to harness some of the things we have developed and done well during the General Election.

It is clear that the use of social media means that campaigning is changing forever.

Of course, local community campaigning will remain vital.

But themed campaigns, on line petitions, and continuing evolving technology and communications means we can do so much more.

We have to rebuild our activist base to work in a different way, and I am convinced that many of our thousands of new members will be the catalyst to making that happen – your energy and enthusiasm is infectious, and it is a delight to have the largest number of new members at a party conference ever. You are all so welcome to the Lib Dem family!

Violet Bonham Carter said many years ago that “A Britain without liberalism would be a Britain that has lost its soul”.

I’m sure that the many people joining our movement in recent months following Nick Clegg’s moving resignation speech would  agree with her, and  with the late, wonderful, Charles Kennedy, who said “We need a liberal agenda in which government resists the temptation to interfere in the lives of individuals, but equally is determined to play an active role where creative action can advance the liberties of all.”

Fellow Liberal Democrats, we have a role to play NOW

In our brave new world we will have to do it all ourselves. No longer do we have the professional resources of yester-year.

We will have to train ourselves to take on new roles. To fight campaigns locally and on line.

To use new techniques to win elections.

To increase our members and activists. But I prefer to put it another way.

To encourage people to join us on our liberal journey.

A journey where we live our values.

Where we run our party by those values.

Where we stand for public office, and govern by those values.

Because that is the only way our country will have a democracy that works for all,

Where the people feel in charge of their own destiny

Where no-one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity.

And where, in the wider world, “all people share in basic rights in which they live in peace, and in which their different cultures will be able to develop freely.”

Fellow Liberal Democrats, we have much to do to make our vision a reality. Join us as we make our world anew.


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This entry was posted in Conference.


  • Eddie Sammon 22nd Sep '15 - 4:14pm

    The motivates of the Conservative Party are misunderstood. Has anyone spoken to a Tory MP who has said they want to get rid of other parties and enforce a one-party state? No. So It is just fear-mongering.

    “their inhumanity”. At least Cameron wants to provide the immediate military support that those fighting ISIS need.

  • Peter Parsons 22nd Sep '15 - 8:39pm

    I don’t believe the Tories want a one-party state, but I do believe that thsy want multi-party system where their opposition is fragmented and therefore, under a majoritarian system, they gain power by being the largest single minority. It is the illusion of representative democracy when, in reality, only 1 in 6 registered voters had a vote that actually counted for something in the most general election (source: turnout combined with Electoral Reform Society analysis on wasted votes).

  • Peter Parsons 22nd Sep '15 - 8:40pm

    most -> most recent

  • Peter Hayes 22nd Sep '15 - 8:49pm

    Eddie, it is not their words it is their actions. Spending lots to support NOTOAV, changing boundaries to increase their number of MPs even when breaking up logical areas like moving Gloucester cathedral into the Forest of Dean, forcing mayors onto areas that want the elected councilors to have a say etc……

  • Eddie Sammon 22nd Sep '15 - 10:31pm

    Peter Hayes, good points. I just think people should be careful not to morally judge other mainstream parties too much.

  • Stephen Campbell 23rd Sep '15 - 11:18am

    @Eddie Sammon: “I just think people should be careful not to morally judge other mainstream parties too much.”

    How can anyone with half a conscience *not* morally judge a political party who treats vulnerable mentally ill people so inhumanely?

    The Tory government’s reply?
    “With such large numbers of people involved there will inevitably be instances where processes are not conducted in line with stated policy.”

    Well, that’s all right then. And, of course, nobody in the government will be punished or held to account for this death. Shows how little a life is worth in this country if you’re not a “striver”.

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