Caroline Spelman – 2004 Speech to Welsh Conservative Party Conference

Below is the text of the speech made by Caroline Spelman to the 2004 Welsh Conservative Party Conference on 3rd April 2004.

Firstly let me take this opportunity to thank you all for coming along to take part in what I am sure you will agree has been an invaluable policy session.

As I am sure you are aware, this is one of the first functions I have undertaken since becoming Shadow Secretary of State for Local and Devolved Government, and I would like to pay tribute to my predecessor David Curry, who worked tirelessly in this brief and with my colleague Bill Wiggin in respect of Wales particularly.

Bill is proving to be a tremendous ambassador not only for the Conservative Party in Wales but vitally for Wales within the Conservative Party and Parliament as a whole, and I would like to thank him for the terrific work he is doing.

I believe passionately in local politics.

For me, in many ways, local government and local councillors are the very embodiment of Conservative values. Strong local representation goes hand in glove with empowering individuals and limiting state interference in people’s lives. Dynamic and effective local councils are integral to the decentralisation in which Conservatives believe.

Just as big Government and ‘command and control’ by the state are the hallmarks of Labour, small Government and trusting local people to deliver solutions to local problems must be the hallmark of the Conservatives.

Councillors voluntarily give up their time, motivated by a sense of civic duty to work to improve their local surroundings.

These are qualities which are integral to Conservative thinking.

Local Government is under the spotlight like never before. As Council Taxes have risen so have people’s determination to scrutinise the way in which their local authority uses that money and to what effect.

We are dealing with an increasingly consumer-orientated electorate who want to know exactly what they are getting for their money and it is our job to show them, rightly, that time and time again they get better value under the Conservatives than they would under Labour or Liberal Democrats.

The cynicism which has beset people’s attitude to national politics is in danger of spreading to local politics, and this brings me onto another reason why I feel so strongly about the importance of local Government.

To people who are interested in politics, which I feel I am confident in claiming we all are, the rise of political apathy is extremely worrying and potentially very destructive.

Local councillors are uniquely placed to combat this apathy head-on. They are better able to stand on the door step, talking face to face with voters about the immediate issues that concern them – taking on board their concerns and developing local solutions.

In fulfilling that role, our candidates and existing councillors are doing a great service not only to the Conservative Party, but to all of those who recognise the importance of a thriving, responsive democracy.

One party that clearly fails to recognise the importance of a thriving, responsive democracy is the Liberal Democrats – a definite misnomer if ever there was.

The Liberal Democrats are political chameleons, changing their policies, attitudes and positions with every doorstep they call at.

We must expose their inconsistencies and hold them to account – particularly here in Wales where they have bedded down with Labour.

Let me quote you a very telling excerpt from a leaked memo circulated within the Liberal Democrat party advising association how to select candidates for local elections:

‘Be shameless in asking. Paperless candidates need not be members of the party and should not be vetted in any way’.

It called for ‘friends and flatmates’ of party members to ‘be persuaded to stand “for a laugh” and for the price of a round of drinks’

‘Make it clear that they will not win, will not be expected to do anything and can choose a ward on the other side of the council area where no one knows them’

‘Get all your paperless candidates together and draw the wards out of a hat in front of them to decide who stands where. Or organise a competition to see who gets the least votes (with a prize)’.

What more needs to be said?

The Liberal Democrats do not take standing for local government seriously and their candidates frequently have little in common the neighbourhoods in which they are running.

This from a party that takes the name ‘Democrats’.

The forthcoming local elections present a great opportunity for the Conservative Party.

We should be quite clear that every council seat we win in Wales will not only be hugely significant in itself, it will be one step closer to reinstating the Conservative Party as the Party of Government.

Winning local elections will not, and should not, come easily though.

As a party we have to go out and work hard for people’s trust and people’s vote. It is not enough to simply expose the failings of the opposition – we know these failings are plentiful and we know they are undermining the quality of life people have a right to enjoy – but we need to show that we have the resolve and solutions to reverse them.

I don’t want to stand before you today and offer you a prescription for winning local elections, because it would run entirely counter to what I have just been saying about trusting local people.

What I can do, is explain the context and narrative of our campaign.

As you are probably aware, the Party has spent a great deal of time finding out what people think of the Government, what they think of the Conservatives, and what they are looking for when they put their cross on the ballot paper.

The overriding feeling is one of disillusionment.

People feel let down by Labour – a party which promised so much and has delivered so little.

Not only are they feeling let down, they are wary of Labour and wary of the tax rises Labour will inevitably bring. This is magnified by the feeling that Labour is failing to address so many of people’s fundamental concerns.

They feel Labour has triggered the pensions crisis; they feel Labour has failed to deliver the reform in health they want to see; they feel the education their children need has been neglected by Labour; and interestingly they feel Labour are not doing enough to protect us from the ever-present danger of terrorism.

These are just a few examples of issues where our research tells us the perception of Labour in office is bad.

Our strategy must be to highlight and reinforce these perceptions.

However, we must also convey with clarity and conviction where Conservatives are good:

Where Tony Blair has let people down, Michael Howard will stand up for them.

Where Labour have driven up taxes and wasted public money on bureaucracy and red tape, the Conservatives will deliver leaner, more efficient and more responsive government at every level.

I and the entire local and devolved government team are there as a resource to help you, to provide you with campaigning ideas, and to create a favourable position for the Party.

However we understand that that nobody knows your local issues and your local voters like you do.

Conservatives can make a real difference locally and the forthcoming local elections are an ideal opportunity to showcase that.

Council Tax is an area where here in Wales Conservatives can successfully steal a march on the opposition at a local level.

Council tax bills have risen by 80% since 1997 – the equivalent to eight times the rate of inflation, with no delivery of real reform in public services.

Council tax has become the ultimate stealth tax and nowhere is this more acute than here in Wales, the actual rate of increase is even higher in Wales than it is anywhere in England.

I think it is very telling that the £27 million earmarked by Gordon Brown to help lower council taxes was taken by the National Assembly to tackle bed blocking.

Not only that – the Welsh assembly has even introduced a new top band of council tax – Band I- as a mechanism for forcing taxes up further.

The local elections are not only crucial for those people actually putting themselves forward for election, they are crucial for everyone that has an interest in the future of the Conservative Party, and in my view crucial for the future wellbeing of Wales, and the country as a whole.

As we approach the forthcoming local and European elections we have a lot of work to do.

Jonathan Evans is a great example of the effectiveness of Welsh Conservatives, and the strength of our European candidates for Wales is a tribute to the calibre of the Conservative Party in Wales.

I know many of you go way above and beyond the call of duty, please don’t think for a second I and my colleagues in Westminster take that for granted.

But there are only so many hours in the day, only so much manpower we can put in, particularly when juggling jobs, family and social commitments.

The Conservative Party in Wales is in a strong position and when the Party in Wales is in a strong position the Party nationally is in a strong position.

I and the local and devolved government team certainly look forward to working with you so that we can build on that as the countdown to June 10 begins.