Conference 2009 Speech by Shadow Home Secretary
Chris Huhne, 22/09/2009
Friends, we are just months from the most important election in a generation. For forty years, we have built this party into an instrument of change. We are the only party which has won more seats and more votes at each of the last three General Elections. I know, with Nick setting out our stall, that we will make more progress next May. The issue is no longer progress, but whether we finally break the system. We must get across the message that Labour cannot win, and that the Tories don“t have to win. The challenges facing Britain are too great for another round of buggins turn. We need a fresh start; not business as usual. Not just a change of government, but a new system of politics. Ending the Tory-Labour ratchet that has stripped our communities of power. A government committed to fairness. Pledged to sustainability. And fighting for freedom.
I am proud of our party. In 1970, we had just six MPs. We could fit them all into a London taxi cab“?.and then we elected Cyril. Today we have ten times as many MPs. Forty years ago, we won rural parishes. Now we win great cities. Only one big city had elections last May, and Bristol wasn“t won by the Conservatives but by us. Bristol joins Liverpool, and Sheffield, and Cardiff, and Edinburgh, and Durham, and Hull, and Portsmouth, and Swansea, and Newcastle as Liberal Democrat cities.
In the fifties, Labour and the Conservatives together won more than 96 per cent of the vote. In election after election, their support has trickled away. This year, for the first time in a national election “ in the European elections in June - Labour and the Conservatives together won less than half the popular vote. The trickle has turned into a torrent. Some Labour folk whistle in the wind and say that the general election will be back to normal. Mandelson the magician will have Brown out of his coffin and walking on water by polling day. Forget it. Labour has come third in the local elections for two years running. Labour has won the lowest share of the national vote in its entire history. Labour cannot win. Not even Labour thinks Labour can win. Gordon Brown is the only person who thinks it“s game on. Everyone else knows the game“s up.
Ah, say the media commentators , but it is the Tories who are benefiting. But if I were David Cameron and George Osborne, I would be worried. Cameron“s key message is “I am not Gordon Brown“. It“s empty. It“s negative, and it won“t stand up to the scrutiny of a campaign. In every election since the seventies bar one, we have picked up support during the campaign as people warm to our ideas. Positive. Fair. Persuasive.
There is another cause for Tory worry. According to Populus, 44 per cent of Conservative voters just want Labour out. But what if people come to realise that Labour cannot win? That“s when people will look not just at the Conservatives, but at us. There is now a real choice. A fork in the road. For the first time in a generation we can and should wield national power.
Look at our track record in all those great Liberal Democrat cities. Look at crime. Tackling crime depends, of course, on effective policing. On detection. On ensuring that criminals know that they will be caught. But it also depends on partnership with councils. Alley-gates in Liverpool stop burglars breaking into back yards. Durham“s Nightsafe scheme curbs drunken brawls. In Tory areas, crime has performed less well than the national average - falling 16 per cent since the peak. Over the same period, crime in Liberal Democrat councils has fallen by more than the national average at 20 per cent. Look at violent crime: down 6 per cent in Tory areas but down more than twice as much - by 14 per cent - in Lib Dem councils. Be proud of our record, because it shows we are ready for national power. Tories talk. Liberal Democrats deliver.
Unlike Labour and the Tories our approach is based on what works. Imagine what we could achieve if we controlled the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice as well as those great cities. We won“t posture about punishment. You could introduce Sharia law in this country without making a blind bit of difference if the system still failed to bring to justice more than one in a hundred crimes. We will have more police on the beat gathering intelligence. We will catch more criminals. And when we catch them, we will prevent them offending again rather than teaching them the tricks of the trade in the colleges of crime we call our prisons.
Remember what happened when the Tories were last in power. The rhetoric was spine-chilling. Get tough on crime. More prisons. Tougher sentences. The reality was different. Crime rose. Violence rose. We can“t afford another failing Tory government on crime. If the Tory record were repeated, there would be more than a million more crimes every year by the end of the next parliament. 62,000 more robberies. 282,000 more burglaries. And fewer police on the beat. A vote for the Tories is a vote for more crime. If you want results not rhetoric, the Liberal Democrats are now the party of law and order.
We need 10,000 more police on the beat, but we also need better policing. We will give local communities the power to hold their police to account. When detection of violent crime is 37 per cent in London and 67 per cent in Cumbria, Londoners should be asking why. The man and woman in Whitehall does not know best. Yet Britain puts more tax money through central government than any other European country except Malta. Tory rate-capping and central control failed time and again. Labour“s centralised targets have been tested to destruction. It is time to trust our communities and empower the public whose taxes have to pay the bills. That is the Liberal Democrat approach “ providing freedom for our communities. Freedom to provide better public services to all our people. To put civic pride back into our town halls. And to be creative, to experiment, to innovate.
And we need Liberal Democrat power at Westminster to safe-guard our liberties. To introduce a Freedom bill that will roll back the sustained assault of this Government and the last. The right to demonstrate. To a jury trial. To know of what you are accused without languishing for weeks in jail. Our Freedom bill is not just a list of Labour misdemeanours, but a reproach to Tory rhetoric. If the Conservatives are really against the surveillance state, why do they promise to remove the current checks on police surveillance? If the Tories believe that we are innocent until proved guilty, why do they refuse to vote against control orders? If they are really for human rights, why would they ditch the Human Rights Act? Under a Tory government we would become the only Europeans without the right to go to our own courts to uphold the human rights accorded to every European. I don“t want second-class Tory justice. I want first-class fairness.
We also need Liberal Democrat power at Westminster for a fair and sustainable recovery. There must be a credible plan to reduce the budget deficit. But cut before the recovery takes root, as the Tories suggest, and you will just knock that upturn on the head. Ask Mrs Thatcher, because jobless growth was her recipe in the eighties. The Tories threw a generation on the scrapheap of mass unemployment, ballooned the benefits bill, and began the process of breaking Britain.
Of course, as soon as the recovery is under way, the savings must start. And we need Liberal Democrats to ensure they really happen. George Osborne may have been well educated, but he has never done a proper job in the real world in his whole life. Never hired. Or fired. Never had to meet a budget or a payroll. Never taken tough decisions. It“s not his fault, but he just hasn“t got the experience. Britain in recession can“t risk a Chancellor learning on the job.
Now look at Vince Cable. A former chief economist of Shell. Vince has never seen a hair-shirt without trying it on. He has led the debate on public expenditure. Baby bonds. Trident. Eurofighter. The troop transport. Challenging the costs of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Benefits for the better off. We have led on talking hard specifics about tough choices. But those tough choices must be fair. The burdens must fall on those with the broadest shoulders. And on fairness, I do not trust George. I do trust Vince.
Remember what the Tories think is fair. Their top target for tax cuts is inheritance tax for those leaving between £650,000 and £2 million. Just two in every hundred families would gain “ a £3 billion a year bonus for the Tories“ best friends. Our target for tax cuts is to lift every low income family out of income tax altogether with a tax-free £10,000 allowance. We will help low and middle income families who work, struggle and strive to make ends meet.
Now that it“s clear beyond doubt that Labour can“t win, it“s time for us to take the gloves off with the Tories. What do the Conservatives stand for when they criticise Labour“s child poverty record, but admit that benefits and pensions will bear the full brunt of their cuts? When they berate City bonuses, but refuse action against them? When they oppose the surveillance state, but want to make police snooping easier? When they say they are progressive, but want to shrink the means of giving people a helping hand up? This is policy by focus group, not principle. All things to all men, the Tories take up as many positions as the Kama Sutra.
But to be fair to Dave, amid all this touchy feely, policy free waffle, he has nailed his colours firmly to one mast “ Europhobia. Dave“s dumped the Tories“ long term allies to jump into bed with the wackos and the weirdos. Never mind Britain“s place in the world. Never mind the need for global partners to tackle climate change, defence or crime. David Cameron says he cares about climate change, but then joins up with the Czech ODS that denies it exists. Cameron says he will stand up for gay people, but then allies himself with a Polish party of homophobes. He says he cares about human rights, but then cuddles up to a Latvian party that celebrates Adolf Hitler“s Waffen SS. You can tell a lot about a party by the company it keeps.
Just because Labour cannot win doesn“t mean the Tories have to win. The Tories think it“s their turn by right - all entitlement and arrogance. They claim, as if they will decide how people must vote, that only the Conservatives can change the Government. I“ll tell you my reply. Only the Liberal Democrats will change the country. Because Labour cannot win, people now have a real choice. To vote for what they want, not against what they fear. We can have fair taxes. A robust recovery. Safe jobs. Accountable public services. Civil liberties. A planet safe for our children. A fresh start for our democracy. This is the historic role of our party. It is to end the politics of fear, and begin the politics of hope. Conference, say it with pride. We hold the torch of progress now.