Conference, it is a pleasure and a privilege for our conference to meet in this great northern seaport city of Liverpool, the city where focus began. Our party is committed to build on the progress of liberal democracy in the north of England – in this city, in Leeds and Manchester, in Newcastle and Sheffield and in many other places besides. Mike Storey was a hugely effective leader for our party in this city and this party owes him a huge political debt. Warren Bradley has proved a tough and worthy successor, and he and his team deserve all our continuing support – above all in this European Capital of Culture year – as they seek a new mandate for our party from the people in May. Offers to help will be gladly received all weekend at the ALDC stall. (With, I am told, a tickling stick for reward!)
No sooner had I finished my last speech to Conference than I had to leave very quickly for Birmingham, where my dear mother Paddy was critically ill. My brothers and I were really touched at the very warm and generous wishes sent to us from Brighton that week. Paddy miraculously pulled through that crisis but very sadly died last November. Our party, as well as her family and friends, owe her a great debt of gratitude, as we do to people like Claire Brooks, Cyril Carr and so many others up and down the length of Britain who have given so much of their energy, skill and time to deliver liberal democracy locally and nationally. As we work ambitiously for the future we should always be encouraged by the work and witness of so many great campaigners who have brought us to our present position – stronger than for over 80 years.
Since Brighton, the party has been on a bit of a rollercoaster ride.
But four people in particular deserve our very special thanks.
I want first to pay a very warm tribute to Ming – and to Elspeth – for all Ming did for our party as leader, to thank him most sincerely, and to express our warmest wishes for his continuing contribution to liberal democracy in parliament, in Scotland, across Britain, and beyond. Ming has added hugely to the respect and credibility of our party, both at home and abroad.
Next I pay tribute to Chris Huhne – on his very doughty leadership contest, and on his unqualified support for Nick since then. After winning huge credibility on environmental issues, Chris has got off to a flying start as our new Shadow Home Secretary – absolutely clear in our opposition to ID cards and further detention without charge, and standing up for the liberties of our people.
A third parliamentary colleague has become a complete star since our last conference – Vince Cable. Vince not only has now been touted as possibly the most popular politician in Britain, but in his opposition to the regime in Saudi Arabia and his proposals for dealing with Northern Rock, he has earned huge respect across the country.
And then Nick. Our new leader has done us proud, from the very day of his election. We all know that the last few days have been difficult – but a week is a long time in politics. I can tell you conference that no leader could have made the party’s position more clear or been more principled. Nick is determined that our party will make the positive case for maximum participation in the European Union, but never to the detriment of the rights of the British people. All Liberal Democrat MPs are united in our belief that we need to make the case for the European Union direct to the British people, so that, once and for all, Britain can shed its reputation for being so lukewarm on Europe. Britain will never be trusted in the leadership of our continent until we show that our commitment to Europe is for life, not just for one more Christmas. And we will take no lectures from Labour or the Conservatives over leadership and the EU.
Thank you, Nick, for your leadership, your principle and your vision. We share your ambition and look forward to great things ahead.
Since Nick’s election we have done best of the three major parties in local elections. That is a good sign. But as we all know, the next big test is May 1st – just 54 days time. In the north-west alone there are 33 councils up for election in the North West of England. Across England there are so many prizes to be won. Hull and North East Lincolnshire are just waiting for majority Liberal Democrat control. Cheltenham, Maidstone and many other places are champing at the bit to push back the Conservatives, Oldham and Sheffield to push back Labour.
In Wales, Cardiff, Bridgend, Swansea and Wrexham all deserve to have larger Liberal Democrat groups after May.
But good results will not just happen, as we all know. We will all need to work hard, focus our collective efforts and get our messages out to voters. To achieve the results we know Liberal Democrats are capable of, we need those of you who have no elections to cross local boundaries to help those who have. We need local efforts to be directed first to the ‘swing wards’. And we need maximum numbers of friends and supporters to be asked to help out with delivery of literature and knocking on doors.
And in London, the battle is well and truly on.
Brian Paddick is an exceptionally well qualified candidate to take on Ken Livingstone, who on reducing crime, building social housing and much else has promised much but quite simply failed to deliver.
And Brian Paddick is also a seriously well qualified candidate to take on the Boris-Johnson-come-lately of the London political scene.
All of Britain knows our capital would be better led by a senior copper than a serial clown.
It is our job to convert that belief into votes and reality.
And what fantastic campaigning opportunities the government has given us.
Following Labour policy, Post Office Ltd .have just announced proposals to close 169 post offices across Greater London. And we must not let the Tories get away with hiding the fact that they did just the same. Liberal Democrats – at conference – agreed not just that we should oppose the present closure programme, but also where new funding to support the post office network would come from. The public are behind us in fighting for these vital local services and we must not let Labour off the hook.
Nationally, we have a Gordon Brown government which has all the disadvantages of New Labour, but without the style.
In London, we have a Ken Livingstone government, which has all the disadvantages of old Labour, but without the style.
In London, as across the UK, we need a government which has none of the disadvantages of old or new Labour, but with lots of style. With Nick leading us nationally, and Brian leading us in London, that’s just what we’ll have.
In Bermondsey, we are this year celebrating 25 years since this party helped me win our momentous by-election and we went on to win our first council seat – and nineteen years later to run the council. With determination and the right approach, any and every seat is winnable, and there should be no ‘no-go’ areas.
We must field candidates in every possible election, and when we’re successful, make sure that our work and our record means that we don’t slip back. We must never forget that we win hearts and minds, not principally by votes and speeches in committee meetings or in debating chambers, but by campaigning with and for people when they need us, and where they have been ignored by complacent councils and supposedly safe MPs.
I am delighted to report that party membership is now growing strongly. I still believe thousands more people will join us if we ask. We all have a responsibility for recruiting and retaining members all of the time. With Nick at the helm, determined to lead a party that challenges the establishment at Westminster and campaigns vigorously around the country, there will be many ready and willing to join us. Just look at the motivating effect of Barack Obama’s campaign across the Atlantic – the excitement, and the opportunity.
If we are determined to make politics exciting as well as principled, to lead the movement for change in corrupt regimes abroad and outdated practices at home, then the widespread cynicism can be countered, and we can achieve our next goal of more than doubling our parliamentary seats within two elections.
Tonight in London, David Haye from Bermondsey can become the undisputed cruiserweight boxing champion of the world. Today Wales can beat Ireland, and next week Liverpool can beat Milan in the Champions League.
In this hall are many individual champions and local council champion teams. Liberal Democrats have the capacity and ideas to be the new champions in Wales, Scotland, England, and for Britain.
Go for it, friends. Nothing should be beyond our reach.