Charles Kennedy – 2004 Speech to Liberal Democrat Party Conference


Below is the text of the speech made by Charles Kennedy, the then Leader of the Liberal Democrats, on 23 September 2004 to the Liberal Democrat Party Conference.

It’s three party British politics.  That’s been the real lesson of this year.  Take those local elections.  Big Liberal Democrat gains.

Taking on and trouncing Labour in places like Cardiff and Cambridge, Liverpool and Newcastle;

Making big gains from them in Leeds and Manchester as well.

While in most of these places the Conservatives just simply disappeared.

You know it is telling indeed that the voters did not think it worthwhile electing a single Conservative councillor in a place like Oxford.

And if you take Scotland and Wales into account and they’re scarcely a national UK political party any longer.

And Liberal Democrats continued making gains from the Conservatives in places like Portsmouth, St Albans and Watford.

In his first speech as the new Liberal Democrat Leader in Newcastle – after thirty years of one party Labour rule – this is what Peter Arnold had to say: –  “For Newcastle Liberal Democrats, one of the most important success criteria will be the extent to which we are able to give the city back to the people…We will be doing things differently, by making sure the Council is less politically partisan and more inclusive. We will be offering Opposition Groups the opportunity to adopt a more positive role in the council’s affairs.”

Now there’s the difference for you – in a nutshell.

As that onetime Liberal, Winston Churchill, put it: “In victory – magnanimity.”  That’s the breath of fresh air that we bring to British politics – and to local communities with it.  That’s why we’re on the move.  And that’s why we pushed Labour into third place for the first time ever in a national election.  Add to those the European elections results.

We stuck firmly to our reforming pro-European principles.

And the outcome?

Two more Liberal Democrat Members of the European Parliament.

Fiona Hall in the North East.  And Saj Karim in the North West.  Saj – our first ever elected Liberal Democrat parliamentarian from an ethnic minority community.  And about time too.  But not unique for long.  In Leicester South – just as in Brent East last year – we leapfrogged the Conservatives – we came from third place to take on Labour and win.  Congratulations, Parmjit Gill.  And never forget we came within an ace of doing the same in Birmingham Hodge Hill as well.  Well done, Nicola Davies.  So fantastic results. Each and every one.  And when you leave Bournemouth make sure that your next stop is Hartlepool.

That’s where I’m heading next.

Immediately after this speech.

Lembit Opik is flying me there.

I kid you not.

Greater love hath no man for our party than he is prepared to place his life in Lembit’s safe keeping in the skies above us.

So I expect to see you all there in Hartlepool.

Well, I really do hope to see you all there in Hartlepool!

We are the challengers.

The Conservatives have already conceded they aren’t in the Hartlepool race.

And it’s a simple statement of fact that the Conservatives are now out of the race in most of urban Britain.

And that the only effective challenge to Labour is coming from the Liberal Democrats.

People know we’ve done it before – and we can do it again in Hartlepool.

If we go out there and make our case – make no mistake.

We CAN do it.


I want to talk to you today about the future.

The future of two things.  The future of our party.  And also the future of our country.  We want the two increasingly to go hand in hand.

We know we can make the political weather – tuition fees, the council tax.

And we know we’re capable of much more yet.

But our success also poses certain questions – and rightly so.

Are these people up to it?

Are those Liberal Democrats ready for the task in hand?

Can we be sure we know what they stand for?

Well we stand for three things above all else.

Freedom. Fairness. Trust.   Those are our watchwords.

Those are the core principles against which our policies must be measured.

And they are the principles which match the increasingly liberal instincts of 21st century Britain.  A Britain now of many faiths, many colours, many languages; A variety of family structures; Far greater life expectancy.

And working patterns our grandparents would scarcely recognise. Social mobility and fast communications; High aspirations and far less deference; Openness and tolerance about sexual orientation.  A Britain where the individual counts for so much

But still a Britain where a sense of community matters.

In so many ways that’s a liberal Britain.

It’s our task now to turn these instinctively liberal attitudes into positive votes for the party of British liberal democracy.

And it is also a Britain in which the way we are governed is being transformed.

We have a Scottish Parliament and National Assembly for Wales, both elected by fairer votes – involving proportional representation.

And -on November 4th people in the North East will have a referendum for a regional assembly. We’re out campaigning hard for that – and I’ll be back on that campaign trail again shortly.

Devolution is at its best when it gets things done. And it’s getting things done that show people what we value and what we stand for.

It’s been a big responsibility for us, in Wales, where we helped bring much needed stability to the Assembly at a crucial moment – and better policies as a result.

Reduced class sizes; more environmental initiatives; free school milk;

Free admission to art galleries and museums, recognising that the legacy and the vitality of Celtic culture demands the decision-makers to understand not just the price of things but also the value of things.

As a result – people know more about what we stand for. And they’re voting accordingly.

Impressive gains this year in Cardiff, Bridgend and Swansea – and so many other places across the country.

And in Wales we carry on pushing for an extension to the law making powers of the Assembly – that has to be the next logical and necessary step forward.

And in Scotland where the partnership there has been delivering on many of our top priorities;

Free personal care for the elderly – delivered.

Abolishing tuition fees – delivered.

Fair votes for local government elections – being delivered.

But it doesn’t stop there.

Liberal Democrats in government in Scotland have set the new agenda for devolution.

A Scottish agenda that deals with long-term challenges – like poor health; the environment; the need to improve education, the foundation for an enterprising country.

New legislation announced by Jim Wallace just this month to provide free eye and dental checks for all.

And a new Environment Bill announced by Ross Finnie so that a green thread runs through the heart of Scottish government, one where every policy will be audited for its environmental impact.

Liberal Democrats getting things done.

And demonstrating how our approach – every time – is rooted in freedom, fairness and trust.

I’ve done a lot of travelling across Britain this year.  And with it a lot of listening.  I listened to the students on campus in Plymouth, worried about their steadily deepening debts and how on earth they would ever escape them.

I listened to the young mother in a Leicester shop, troubled that teachers are not getting the time to teach her children properly.

I listened to the Asian grandmother in Huddersfield, who told me about being genuinely afraid, for the first time in over thirty years in her local community, because of the growth of mindless racism among an unrepresentative few.

And then the high street traders in Birmingham, utterly sick and tired of senseless vandalism against their properties.

And their local customers, equally scared about street violence and the threat of crime as it affects them personally.

The pensioners in Exeter – bitter about their dwindling resources, confused about losing their pension books, unhappy about the level of pensions themselves and angry about seemingly never-ending council tax rises.  And to the doctor in Norwich, expressing his sheer frustration at the remote, command and control from London which characterises so much of this government’s mismanagement of our National Health Service.  And then the school pupils in Cardiff, thinking aloud about pollution and climate change – uncertain about the environment they would inherit.

This is our Britain today; these are typical of people’s concerns.

Well, if you seek to lead, first you must listen.

People have a huge desire to be listened to; for politicians to take the time to understand their problems.

And address those problems with solutions.

It is we Liberal Democrats that are now providing the answers.

For students – when the pupil aspires to become the student, we would encourage and enable them – by stopping tuition fees and axing top-up fees – one of the most socially retrograde acts of this government, when what Britain needs is a university system affordable to all.

For parents – we will equip children for life – because children well cared for and well taught in their early years have a far better chance of success.

So we will reduce class sizes for the youngest children and give teachers time to teach and children time to learn by abolishing unnecessary tests and red tape.

And we would ensure that every child, in every classroom, in every school is taught by a qualified teacher in the relevant subject.

That’s what the Liberal Democrats stand for.


For those in fear of racism – first, a real lead from politicians – celebrating the fact that our country is better, it’s richer and more diverse, precisely because it is a multicultural society.  And that we have been prepared to stand out and if necessary alone in having no truck with short-term, knee-jerk responses to complex social issues.  That we won’t pander to the lowest common denominator over asylum and immigration. But we’ll reform the systems – to make them fairer and faster.  And that we respect people’s genuine religious and cultural identities at community level.

That’s what the Liberal Democrats stand for.


On Crime – 10,000 more police on the streets and cutting the time spent on paperwork, so they can spend more time tackling drug dealers, muggers and yobs.

Use prison as an opportunity to educate in the basics – numeracy, literacy – so that when they get out people will be far better able to find work and far less likely to reoffend.  And for the victims of crime open up the courts so that they can confront the offenders – and speed up the system of compensation as well.

That’s what the Liberal Democrats stand for.


For pensioners – we will continue – to make and win the case for axing the unjust, unfair, increasingly unworkable council tax.  And its replacement by a fair, local income tax – based on people’s ability to pay.

We’ll stop the scandal of elderly people having to pay for their personal care – and probably losing the family home in the process.  We would deliver free long-term care for the elderly.  And all pensioners over 75 – the war generation – should be entitled to a pension which lifts them above mean-testing – £100 extra a month.  No-one should be demeaned in their old age anymore.  And this specific pledge to women, who have long been discriminated against because of the way the pension system works.

For the first time you will be treated equally.

For the first time you will have a pension in your own right.

That’s what the Liberal Democrats stand for.


On health – We would put patients first and free doctors and nurses from Whitehall meddling.  Liberal Democrats would hack away the red tape, abolish the absurd targets and free our frustrated doctors and nurses.

Let the local community and the local doctors and local nurses make the decisions. They are far better placed to get them right.   And more emphasis than ever before should be placed on prevention of ill health and promotion of healthy lifestyles.  We truly need a health and not just a sickness service.

That’s what the Liberal Democrats stand for.


On the environment – our determination to make the environment count at every level of Government means thinking green in every area.

Yes, it’s big picture stuff – from the food chain to climate change, energy to trade, aviation to sustainable international development.

Britain can’t do this alone.  The Prime Minister is right to use our presidency of the EU and the G8 next year to press for consensus.

But if we can lead by example, if we can achieve our Kyoto targets ahead of time, we can encourage other countries to sign up.

If we can deliver 20% of our electricity needs through renewable energy by 2020, that would be leading by example.

Take air travel – which is fast become the world’s biggest polluter.

We should be shifting taxes on aviation away from the passenger and onto the plane itself which does the polluting.

Now that would be leading by example too, encouraging better fuel efficiency and therefore less pollution.

But quality of life actually begins at home – it’s in your street, around your community.

And our approach to the environment must begin there too.

The green thread that should run through all aspects of government, should run through all aspects of our lives also.

So more park and ride schemes for our towns and cities – cutting pollution in our streets.  More local recycling initiatives – showing how all of us can make that difference within our own homes.

Cutting waste – reusing – improving.

That’s what the Liberal Democrats stand for.  Freedom. Fairness. Trust.  Because that’s what these – and many more – policies are rooted in.  Policies designed to create more freedom.

Based on social fairness.

Not bogus, false choices – designed to distract.

But real, quality local choice – designed to deliver.

And it’s all underpinned by economic fairness as well.

This is crucial to our credibility and critical to our success.

From the outset, I have insisted that we have the most watertight set of tax and expenditure proposals possible.   We want to tax more fairly and spend more wisely.  Isn’t it a disgrace that after 7 years of a supposedly Labour government the poorest 20% contribute more of their income in tax than do the richest 20%?  We don’t want the politics of economic envy. But we do want the politics of social equity.

What does that mean?  It means asking the top 1% of income earners to pay a top marginal rate of tax of 50p for every pound earned above £100,000.

That pays for our immediate commitments to:

* Scrap tuition and top-up fees for students;

* Introduce free personal care for elderly and disabled people;

* And keep down the level of local taxes.  But spending on our priorities does not mean higher taxes across the board.  It means looking hard as well at how much Government spends and getting value for money for taxpayers.

And we’ve already found further large savings – at least £5bn a year – by cutting back on big, centralised government and redirecting money to priority spending:

* Dropping plans for identity cards;

* Scrapping some government departments and relocating others away from high-cost central London;

* Doing less, better and more efficiently – and concentrating more on what really matters.

It is this approach which gives us the credibility to pledge.

* Axing the £1bn Child Trust Fund, the so called baby bonds scheme, and spending the money now when children need it most, not the state stashing it away until 2022;

* 10,000 more police on the streets – cutting crime and the fear of crime;

* Making sure that by 2011 Britain finally fulfils its UN obligations by boosting the overseas aid budget to 0.7% of GNP;

* £25 more on pensions every week for those aged 75 and over with a million pensioners taken off means testing.

The figures add up; the balance sheet is balanced.

Freedom. Fairness. Trust.  It is trust that has to underpin everything else.  And it’s winning public trust that is going to be the biggest challenge of all.  Over the course of this parliament one issue more than any other has helped define just what the Liberal Democrats stand for in the minds of millions of our fellow citizens.  You know what I’m talking about.  And the people know exactly what we’ve been talking about.  From the outset we have provided rational, principled and consistent opposition to the war in Iraq.

We’ve done it without exaggeration. We’ve done it without name-calling. We’ve done it – quite simply – because we believed it was the right thing to do.

Now I believe the vast majority of people have made their minds up – one way or the other.

Donald Rumsfeld promised shock and awe.

What we got was shock and then steadily increasing horror.

The Prime Minister promised action on the Middle East Road Map.

What we got was little progress and more violence.

There’s a sullen, and increasingly angry mood on the issue. And understandably so.

Not least when Kofi Annan declares the war illegal.

When the Iraq Survey Group is expected to conclude that the WMD were not there.

When the Foreign Office warned of the likely disastrous consequences.

And when it appears the Government told the Bush administration, a full year before the war started, that it would not budge in its support for their policy of regime change – and yet the Prime Minister told our Parliament and our people that it was all about weapons of mass destruction.

There is a fundamental question that the Prime Minister has consistently failed to answer.

I asked him this in the House of Commons in the run up to war, and again as recently as the 20th of July this year during the debate on the Butler Report.

“Did he advise President Bush privately – long before the United Nations route was formally abandoned – that if the President decided to prosecute an invasion of Iraq, the British would be in active military support, come what may?

“If he did advise the President to that effect, when did such an exchange take place?”

When Parliament next convenes, the Prime Minister must take the first opportunity to come to the Despatch Box and make a full statement.

It’s time we got an answer.

And if the Prime Minister still refuses, the people can make a judgement.

There is the ultimate verdict of the general election itself.  Lord Hutton did not provide the answer.  Nor did Lord Butler.  The decision to decline to participate in Lord Butler’s enquiry was a tough one at the time.

But it was the correct decision as events have proved.  And at the end of the day that is what trust in political leadership has to be all about.  What trust today in what our leaders told us at the time about Iraq?  And what kind of corrosive effect does that have on politics generally?  Yet the tragic experience of Iraq should have the opposite effect.  And I believe it can.  It should galvanise people to participate, to make their views known through the ballot box.  It should strengthen all of our resolves to rededicate ourselves to the rebuilding of effective international institutions, to the repairing of shattered alliances among long-standing friends.

But within our own country – one lesson must be learned.  This country is still crying out for an effective political system that responds to them and listens to the people.  More openness. More accountability. Politicians taking responsibility for their decisions.

Never again must this country be led into war on the basis of questionable intelligence.  Never again must this country be sold an incomplete and false prospectus as a basis for unilateral military action without the sanction of the United Nations.  Never again must Britain find itself on such a basis so distanced from principal partners within Europe.

Never again should our troops find themselves without proper and adequate equipment in a war zone.  Never again should such supreme Prime Ministerial power be allowed to progress without sufficient checks and balances.  And without the proper operation of collective Cabinet government itself.

And never again should a so-called “official opposition” be entitled to that name when it so pathetically fails to fulfil its most basic parliamentary function and duty – the provision of constructive and effective questioning of the executive of the day.

Never again.

But we should not just look back in anger.

There is every sign that we need to look forward with increasing anxiety.

And that is why the Prime Minister should also take that opportunity to give a cast iron guarantee that the United Kingdom will not support unilateral military action against Iran.

You know some commentators will tell you that our recent victories are just the fall out from Iraq.

That the Lib Dems are just the protest vote.

Well, let’s face it. There has been a lot for people to protest about.

But we are being seen more and more as a party which does win elections, which does exercise responsible representation, which has become increasingly comfortable with the duties and the disciplines of power.

Some also say that you can’t go chasing left-wing voters and right-wing voters at one and the same time – while remaining consistent and true to your principles.

It is a deeply flawed analysis – based on a fundamental misreading of today’s Britain.

Why? Because for the vast majority of people who live their lives in an increasingly inter-dependent world, facing increasingly complex issues, for them the old-fashioned nostrums of right and left no longer apply.

They’re looking for solution-based politics. Politics which address their everyday needs.

There is a shift in the way people view politics, one that transcends any single issue.

Iraq has been part of this, but by no means is it the whole story.

I come across it, day in and day out.

People see that the Labour and Conservative agendas are converging.

Where as ours is about having the freedom to make the most of our lives.

It’s about what is fair – taxation based on ability to pay and delivery for all not the few.

And that you have to be able to trust your political leaders and your political parties to deliver.

There’s a deep-rooted sense in our country that somehow all is not quite right.

That somehow all is not as we’re being told it is.

An underlying sense of doubt.

Made worse by the fact that people just don’t trust this Government.

This Government flags up the big, long-term difficult issues – pension provision, funding local services, global warming – but then puts off serious discussion and decisions until safely beyond another general election.

But people don’t identify with the Conservatives – because that party just doesn’t connect with them.

They hark back to a Britain that is no more.

They’re out of touch with the Britain of today.

No wonder they fall back on hard-core instincts – and increasingly belongs to all our yesterdays.

In huge swathes of the country it’s the Conservatives who are now firmly established – as the third party.

In so much of the country a vote for the Conservatives is now a wasted vote.

The third party – on their third leader in as many years – and a third leader who’s just had his third reshuffle in less than a year.

Well, they say variety is the spice of life. For the Conservatives it looks to me much more like the kiss of death.

They belong to the past. We’re working for the future.

We are moving from a party of protest to a party of power.

3 party politics is here – and here to stay.

You know, at times this past year I’ve felt rather nostalgic.  21 years as a Member of Parliament.  You learn quite a lot after more than two decades doing any job. Direct personal experience does teach along the way.

That’s why, whenever I’m asked to speculate – an occupational hazard – I always suggest to people not to waste time on the crystal ball, but instead learn from the history book.

It’s really quite simple.

For the country to believe in a political party – first that party has to believe in itself.

We’re at our best, we perform best, we persuade best – when we spend our time talking positively about what it is that we have to offer.

And we’re far more likely to achieve that from a position of principled party independence – not one distracted by noises off.  So when people ask me “Where does your party stand?” my starting point is not the crystal ball.  Instead, it’s crystal clear.  No nods, no winks, no deals, no stitch ups.

If, on polling day at next general election, more people vote Liberal Democrat – then the next day and in the next parliament what you will get are more Liberal Democrats working for more liberal democracy.

Not something else.

But working all out for better public policies from Parliament.

Prepared to work with others on issues of principle – like Europe.

But not prepared to surrender our essential political independence along the way.

That’s our Liberal Democrat pledge to the people.

So there is a fundamental choice before us all at the next General Election.  The British people have probably not more than 225 days left to choose between two essentially conservative parties – and the real alternative which is the Liberal Democrats.

225 days.

Then a stark choice. A serious choice.  And we, increasingly, are the winning choice.  Because all that we say and all that we do is based on those fundamentals.  Freedom. Fairness. Trust.

That’s us.

That’s what we want from our politics.

That’s what we stand for.

That’s what we want our country to stand for.

At home – and abroad.

That’s Liberal Democracy.