Wherever I go, I find Liberal Democrats who are infinitely more upbeat, positive and determined than anyone in the media thinks we should be. You have every right to be upbeat.
You are the most important people I know. Never have Liberal Democrat voices and values been so important. Never have Liberal Democrat victories been so necessary. Because over the next two and a half years our economy and our society will either get rescued or wrecked; fairer or more divided; greener or darker.
Like us the Conservatives also want economic recovery. But they don’t care about a fairer and more equal society, or a green economy. That is our job.
The battles that matter take place in the second half of this Parliament. We have to win vital arguments in the media, on the doorsteps, at the school gates, in the pub, in the workplace and in the corridors of power that we share with our coalition colleagues. There will be compromise and competition between two separate visions, ours and the Tories.
Only two parties matter and neither of them is Labour.
Britain: better, fairer, greener? It is entirely down to us. When you joined the Liberal Democrats, didn’t we tell you that you could make a difference? Well we were talking about right now. All those leaflets, all those surveys, all that door knocking for such a time as this.
And you won power, you earned this historic opportunity by winning arguments, recruiting members and building the base that won us thousands of councillors, and dozens of MPs.
I need us to see this as the moment when the 2015 General Election began, when we committed the energy, the time, the resources to winning against our opponents. You’ve beaten them once, go out and beat them again.
You came to Brighton for a reason. So let’s remember why we are here. At 10.30 on a Sunday morning! Why are you a Liberal Democrat? What brought you to Brighton? My road to Brighton started 26 years ago in a terraced house in Lancashire. What brought me to Brighton, what made me a Liberal Democrat is that I am an internationalist, an environmentalist. I want a society where no one should be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity. I believe in seeking peace. I believe in transferring power and wealth from the powerful and wealthy to the powerless and poor. I believe in equality, in personal freedom and liberty – I am a Liberal.
Wherever we started, our road to Brighton is one that we share. The triumphs, the setbacks, the survival against the odds. We are driven by a liberalism that stands firm whatever the fashion – we survive despite the fact that we have no vested interest to protect us, but our survival is essential precisely because we serve no vested interest.
So that road to Brighton took us via the Granada studios one night in April 2010. The place where Nick Clegg wiped the floor with David Cameron and Gordon Brown – the night when Nick single handedly prevented a majority Tory government; And the road to Brighton took us to the day when for the first time in five generations, Liberal Democrat ministers entered government. Because I didn’t join the Liberals to comment upon the world, I joined the Liberals to change the world – and you don’t change the world from the luxury of opposition.
But you have changed things, you change them every day. You increased the state pension by the biggest amount ever. You kicked Trident into the long grass. You won a 5.2% increase in welfare benefits. You brought in the Green Investment Bank. You doubled the number of apprenticeships. You scrapped ID cards. You had the balls to stand up to the press barons. You made sure that Britain meets the UN target on overseas aid. You cut income tax for the 23m lowest paid people in this country. You are realising the dreams of generations of Liberals.
You know, I bet you’re sick to death of knocking on people’s doors and them thanking you for all this. But I’ll tell you what, we have too much still to do... we are nowhere near done...this is it.....this is our time!
And we will not waste this opportunity, we will learn from others mistakes. Labour’s 13 years for instance – what a mandate, what a disappointment. Could have reigned in the banks – too chicken to upset the bankers; could have transformed our democracy – too chicken to face down their own dinosaurs; could have made our tax system fairer – too chicken to offend their donors.
We have a much harder job than Labour did, the British people chose not to give us a majority, Mr Brown left us with no money, our options were not immense but our passion to serve our country is immense and we are not going to waste this chance. Every week when I go out knocking on doors I can guarantee that before the evening is out I will meet a teacher, a nurse, a young copper, who will tell me they have no hope of finding a decent affordable home. All they want is somewhere they can afford somewhere they can call home in the community that they serve. This is our chance to help them and build ourselves out of recession at the same time.
It’s an immense challenge: immense challenges require immense ambition – so let’s commit now to put a roof over the heads of families in need, let’s commit now to build 250,000 council houses, and lets commit now to do it by 2015. And our banks are failing the British people, the very people who saved them. We must act to stop them killing off good businesses. Some of the poorest people I know run small firms. A friend of mine runs a small business in Kendal. He has the livelihoods of his twelve employees and their families on his conscience – keeping them in a job keeps him awake at night. To keep his staff in a job, to keep his business afloat he pays himself less than the minimum wage. These are the people that the banks are betraying.
So I’ve had enough of giving carrots to the banks, it’s not worked. It’s time to use a big stick. We must get British businesses the money that they need, creating jobs, escaping recession. If the banks won’t lend, then we must now build – or acquire - a government business bank. And I want us to be Britain’s tax cutting party. Cutting taxes for the millions who need a tax cut, paid for by the millionaires who don’t. The £10,000 tax threshold is a triumph for you, a triumph for millions of workers, but it is not enough!
Taxation is the subscription charge for living in a civilised society. It is unacceptable when tax makes struggling families struggle more. And it is unacceptable for the staggeringly wealthy to avoid paying their fair share.
Friends, as your President I want us to commit to keep going, to keep liberating more lowpaid people from a burden they can’t bear, to make sure that no one on minimum wage pays a penny on income tax. We live in a divided society where some get to bequeath their privilege to their children and others get to bequeath their lack of opportunity to theirs. What a disgrace and what a waste.
I saw a speech from the headteacher of a private school recently, he said his was the school where the leaders of tomorrow, the leaders of industry, finance, politics and the arts are created. It’s not the brightest way of picking our leaders is it? I wonder how many innovators, wealth creators, leaders we have forgone because they didn’t have that opportunity? This is still a society divided at birth. And divided we fail.
In the last 50 years, no one has done more to correct this inequality, this outrageous waste than Sarah Teather and Nick Clegg. Be proud that Liberal Democrats now preside over the best early years education in history, be proud that the pupil premium redistributes advantage to the disadvantaged and opportunity to the excluded. And be proud that we have stopped the return of the CSE! Be proud, but do not be satisfied, there is so much more to do.
We have to win the battle for our environment. Be proud of what Chris Huhne and Ed Davey have achieved at Energy and Climate Change but do not be complacent in the face of Tory climate change deniers.
You remember the Tory slogan: vote blue go green? So Dave, how’s that going? David Cameron has stopped making nice speeches about climate change, stopped making trips to the north pole to hug the huskies, and he’s started sending poor Zac Goldsmith straight to voicemail! They should take that little squiggly tree that they have for a logo and replace it with a 747. So, if we are to have a green future, then the Liberal Democrats must win the argument all day every day over the second half of this Parliament.
To those Tories who want to pretend there is no climate change. Well try denying it to the Australian farmer whose once fertile land is now desert. Try denying it to the Bangladeshi family who have been displaced as water levels rise. Try denying it to the thousands of householders across the UK whose homes have been flooded this last five years.
So for the sake of all of our tomorrows Liberal Democrats must ensure that this is the greenest government ever. Backing ambitious green projects to create a legacy to be proud of, a new deal, a green deal, healing our environment, creating legions of jobs, grabbing our chance to turn the tide of climate change. On housing, on banking, on fair tax, on fair education, on our environment – there are battles to be won at the heart of government and in front of the British people.
For the next two and a half years, Britain is a two party system, and we are one of them.
William Gladstone; David Lloyd George; Roy Jenkins. I have no doubt that they would share our frustrations in government. I equally have no doubt that they would be immensely proud of us. Fighting for a free-er, fairer Britain we honour their memory, we are true to our Liberal heritage. But to me, what matters much more is what comes next.
Our Liberal vision should not be to win power for the sake of it. But it should be to win power. Let’s seek to govern, and govern, as Liberals. And if we choose that vision, we would be foolish to write off those voters who have gone off us in the last two years. I absolutely refuse to give up on them. They may be disappointed, angry, perplexed but it is up to us to give them a vision, reasons, a passion to return. And you know we can’t rescue our country for better if we don’t win elections.
That rescue is not a foregone conclusion – but that rescue will be in vain if it doesn’t also leave Britain fairer and greener. This is the 25th successive September that I’ve chosen to spend a week with you lot, and I wouldn’t be anywhere else! So you’ve always been important to me, but today you’re as important as it gets.
We are not going to waste this time. We are precious, powerful, the only progressive party that matters and we have an immense responsibility to our Liberal heritage to our Liberal Democrat future and to our country that put us where we are.
I am proud of the difference you have made, but there is so much more to do. Never crave the comfort of opposition. Never get nostalgic about the easy life before everything supposedly became our fault. Never look at Labour’s position of glorious irresponsibility with envy. Be grateful that we are where it matters when it matters, that when good needs to be done, we are now there to do it.
Others will fight for their vested interests. We will fight for a better, fairer, greener Britain because that is why we started on our road. The hard road, the only road, the road to a Liberal Britain. To survive, to thrive, to govern.