Our Future or Our Past? The Choice for the Liberal Democrats

A Speech by the Deputy Prime Minister and Leader of the Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg at the Liberal Democrat Local Government Conference, Manchester Saturday 22 June 2013

A Choice

It is now less than two years until the General Election.
As we approach it, every Liberal Democrat will have to make a choice. 

Do you look to the 7th May 2015 as our release date? 
The moment that, in Westminster, our party can throw off this Coalition...
Returning to the safety and comfort of opposition? 
Or do you look at 2015 – and every election before and beyond – as an opportunity: a chance to govern?  
 
Our party is at a very real fork in the road – with very real consequences, depending on which way we turn.

One way embraces the future:
Where the Liberal Democrats seek to become a firm party of Government...
Striving to govern at every level in order to make Britain a better place. 

The other clings to our past: 
Limiting our ambitions and our prospects; 
Consigning ourselves to be “the third party” forever; 
Turning away from the millions of people we have promised to serve.

It is crucial that we take the right decisions, and we do so together. 
And so today I am here to ask for your help. 
 

The Purpose of Power

If that isn’t the ask you were expecting, answer me this: 
Who better to help lead the party on this journey than you? 
 
It’s the people in this room, and your predecessors, who first taught the Liberal Democrats what it means to govern. 
Liberal Democrat councillors who drove the Tories out of shires and counties in the 1990s.
Liberal Democrats councillors who took Labour’s urban citadels the decade after. 
Liberal Democrat councillors who continue to deliver for people up and down Britain. 
 
And you know, like I know, that our party can only fulfil our purpose by exercising power wherever we can. 
Not power for power’s sake, but power to make a difference. 

That’s what you do every single day. 

All of you understand that the best way to take on vested interests, the best way to challenge the establishment, is to get on the inside – to govern. 
And it’s exactly the same in Westminster. 

I am proud of the things we achieved in opposition – of course I am. 
But the truth is this: 
The Liberal Democrats can do more good in a single day in local and national Government than in an eternity in opposition.  

  • In Coalition Government, Liberal Democrats are now leading Britain through the most profound economic crisis in living memory.
  • Taking the difficult decisions on the deficit, but making sure we spread the burden in a way that is fair.  
  • Laying the foundations for a new, rebalanced economy, built on sound public finances and fuelled not just by the City of London, but every part of the UK.
  • Transforming the tax system, so that we begin the process of shifting the burden away from earned income towards unearned wealth.
  • Making social mobility the official and overriding aim of all Government social policy.
  • Insisting that growth can and must be green – driving forward major reform of the electricity market, the green deal, the Green Investment Bank.
  • Standing against those forces that would have Britain pull up the drawbridge and turn away from the rest of the world.
  • Providing a liberal defence of hard-won civil liberties.
  • Preventing profit making in schools; making sure the reformed planning system will protect rather than threaten our environment; vetoing ideas that would undermine workers’ rights.
  • And we are doing what only liberals will ever do:
    Using power in the centre to disperse power away from the centre.

Working hard to get central government to cut the purse strings...
Driving an unprecedented transfer power back to councils and communities. 

City deals. Community Budgets. The Single Pot proposed by the Heseltine Review. 
Removing the ringfence around £7bn worth of central government funds. 
Creating new powers for you to keep your business rates, and borrow against them to invest in infrastructure.
The General Power of Competence. Neighbourhood planning.
Introducing rights for local groups to take over struggling services. 
Helping councils deliver desperately needed social homes.

I am not going to try and gloss over the pressure on your budgets.
Local government spending is 25% of all government spending...
And councils are having to contribute to deficit reduction.
You’re all being asked to do more with less.  

But local government is facing those challenges armed with greater freedom, greater flexibility, much more power over the money you spend...
And that has only been possible with Liberal Democrats governing at the centre. 

On every big question facing Britain – decentralising power, fixing the economy, the environment, Europe, reforming public services, civil liberties, crime and rehabilitation – liberalism offers the right solution. 
And for that reason, the Liberal Democrats must always stand ready to govern, locally and nationally.
Yes for the good of our party, but much more importantly, for the good of our country. 
 

The alternative

The question is how do we become this fully-fledged party of government?
It’s a project bigger and longer than any one election, any one parliament.
It will take time and discipline.
Crucially it will take commitment and leadership, including from all of you in this room. 

And here’s the thing: 
Very few people will disagree with the aim. 
But it is not enough to rally around that end...
We have to will the means too.   

We cannot fake this choice.
We can’t nod and agree and say how important it is – only to then carry on as normal. 
Our party needs to make some big changes to the way we do things...
The way we deploy our message; how we design our policies.
And you and I need to work together on those changes in order to take the rest of the party with us.
 
Before I come onto how we do that, let’s just be absolutely clear on the alternative.
 
Governing has carried a cost. 
We have taken a hit;
Our opponents try to use the fact we are in government nationally against us locally 
And I cannot stress enough how proud and grateful I am for the grace and determination with which you have absorbed all of that. 
 
But I also know that if we try and turn back the clock...
Hankering for the comfort blanket of national opposition...
Seeking to airbrush out the difficult decisions we have had to take...
We condemn our party to the worst possible fate: 
Irrelevance; impotence; slow decline
 
Imagine yourself on the doorstep – two different conversations.
 
The first: 
Hello, I’m from the Liberal Democrats, for which I am truly sorry...
No, I’d rather not talk about the things we’ve done in national government if you don’t mind...
Around here we’ve been terribly nice, would it be possible to just stick to that?
 
The second: 
I’m from the Liberal Democrat Party. 
When the country needed it, we stepped up to our responsibilities...
Entering into Coalition with our opponents for the sake of the national interest. 
We have taken some difficult decisions, but by doing so the country’s battered economy is on the mend. 
Well over a million jobs have been created...
As well as record numbers of apprenticeships...
And we have managed to cut taxes for the vast majority of British taxpayers. 
Here in this neighbourhood we have also protected vital services that matter to you. 
Vote for us again and you will get more of the same.

That’s the conversation that will inspire people to support us. 
We will not be rewarded for hiding our achievements and beliefs. 
And our biggest error would be to come this far only to head into retreat.

Three years ago, at our Special Conference, we came together and agreed to take this leap. Everything since – every knock, every bruise – has been a down-payment.
And losing our nerve now would undermine our credibility; 
It would confuse the people we are asking to vote for us; 
It would be a gift to our opponents; 
And it is the surest way to lose support.

And, more than that, it would be to squander a huge opportunity too.

I cannot remember a time when this party’s values were so in step with the country at large. Ed Miliband is wrong when he says Britain has shifted to the left. 
The Tories are wrong if they think they can hold power by lurching to the right.
More than ever the British people want their government anchored to the centre ground...
Where the Liberal Democrats are holding firm.   
 
What does it mean to be a liberal party of the centre ground?
It means you embrace opportunity and responsibility with the same enthusiasm.
So you don’t accept that people are helpless and hapless...
Best shepherded through life by an over-bearing state. 
But you cannot abide laissez-faire government that leaves its citizens to sink or swim.
Instead you believe that there is something great in every man, woman and child...
It just needs to be unlocked.

In 21st century Britain, that vision – our vision – speaks to people. 
There are millions of British citizens who feel alienated by the extremes of left and right. 

Yes, they believe central government should bring down the welfare bill...
But for the right reasons: reforming welfare so we help people into work...
Enabling them to get on in life...
And ensuring we still provide support to those who need it. 

Yes, they want us to get a grip on immigration...
But they still value the benefits it brings.

Yes, they accept the need for austerity...
But only if it is administered in a way that is fair. 

These are people who value tolerance and freedom; 
Who believe progress is possible;
They are internationalist in their outlook;
Generous by their nature;
Compassionate towards the least advantaged.

Labour doesn’t stand for them. 
The Tories don’t stand for them.
These are our supporters – present and future. 
And now is the moment for us to reach out.
We need to build on everything we have achieved...
And capitalise on the unity our party has shown, even in our most difficult moments – unity our opponents would give anything for. 
 

Identity

That means two big changes. 
 
First, a much more consistent and concerted effort to communicate our identity as a party of local and national government...
Something that will help each of us, in whichever election we stand – starting with May next year. 

Part of this is turning up the volume:
Knocking on every door possible, stuffing leaflets through every letter box we can. 

But that, alone, is not enough.
 
In the past, the Liberal Democrats had to deploy highly localised campaigns.
Yes, we had key national policies: a penny on income tax for education; our opposition to Iraq.
But up against a suffocating two party system, the only way to get a foothold was through targeted, street-by-street campaigns. 

During that time, it was the entirely right thing to do, and it was very effective. 
Indeed, that approach earned us our reputation as an unstoppable campaigning force.

But it is a tactic, not a strategy for building the strong, sharp identity we should be aiming for as a party that can hold national office.  
And we are in a different phase now. 

We must always speak to local people and local concerns – that is one of our greatest strengths.
But we must contextualise those messages, ensuring people understand the values and character that define our whole party.

Going forward, the idea that in a General Election we can be under a national spotlight and yet run the campaign as a series of loosely linked by-elections simply isn’t possible. 
We can be singing different verses – but they must all be from the same song. 
 
So we need to repeat our central message relentlessly. 
When people hear the words ‘stronger economy and fairer society’ I want the yellow bird to immediately pop into their heads. 
I want them to be able to finish the sentence: ‘a stronger economy and a fairer society, enabling everyone to get on in life’. 
And we need to bring together our achievements – campaigning simultaneously on our local and national records. 
An approach tried and tested in the Eastleigh by-election – where we saw how well it works. 
 

Policies

Second, our policies.
 
The Liberal Democrats have always sought to offer policies that encapsulate our values and are also credible.  

In 2010, while Labour was still in denial about the black hole in the economy...
We were the only party to fully cost our manifesto.
We set out how the savings we had identified in government spending would be reallocated to fund our policy proposals and contribute to deficit reduction. 
And, uniquely, we listed, on the front cover, the four priorities that we would seek to deliver, come hell or high water.
Which we have done – cutting income tax, the Pupil Premium, beginning the process of rebalancing the economy and pursuing political reform.
                                         
Despite that, however, we still made a pledge that, in the end, we could not deliver: tuition fees. 
Partly because of the compromises of Coalition...
Partly because of the worsening fiscal crisis...
But, either way, something we should not have done – and a mistake I will not repeat. 
 
So, as we go into 2015, we are going to work harder than ever to produce a manifesto that is practical, responsible and deliverable. 
With coalitions increasingly likely in British politics, every line in our manifesto will be a potential government policy
And this manifesto will be scrutinised like never before. 

I've been crystal clear with David Laws since the day I asked him to coordinate this process: 
I want the manifesto to set out our ambitious vision for a liberal society...
But it must be a to-do list, not a flight of fancy. 

That doesn't mean "pre-negotiating" our manifesto - producing a bland, generic set of plans we know either of the other parties could sign up to. 
Far from it. 
We can and must fight the next election on a platform of distinct, forward-looking, liberal policies. 
We must not stifle our vision, our creativity or our boldness with either political or technocratic excuses. 
 
But, building on the approach we took in 2010, we will be even clearer with people about the commitments which are priorities...
And the ambitions which we accept may be affected by resources and circumstances.
As a party with compassionate instincts, the desire to offer big spending commitments will be as strong as it has ever been... 
But we will resist the temptation to talk big and end up delivering small. 
 
You’re used to this kind of rigour in your day jobs...
And as the party agrees the manifesto in the lead up to the election, I need you to get behind this approach.  
 

Conclude

Before I finish, let me say that I am under no illusion about the scale of the task we face.
I know what we are up against.
 
But when I look ahead, for every obstacle I see a dozen opportunities.
And when I look back, I see the Liberal Democrats who came before us;
The people who built our party out of nothing...
Who kept liberalism alive despite being squeezed from every side...
And who would have given anything to face the dilemmas we are grappling with now. 

They would tell us that, yes, it is a challenge, but it is also a privilege. 
It’s time to seize this party’s future: 
So that the Liberal Democrats become a natural party of local and national government, once and for all.  


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