Susan Kramer – 2016 Speech to Liberal Democrat Party Conference

Below is the text of the speech made by Susan Kramer, the Liberal Democrat Treasury Spokesperson, at the party conference on 19 September 2016.

A few years ago, in 2014, a man by the name of George Osborne stood up at Tory Party Conference and announced that the Conservatives had a ‘long-term economic plan’.

It was a plan built on sorting out the financial mess, restoring business confidence, and showing that ‘Britain is open for business.’

… well that went well.

The reality was the moment Osborne was left to his own devises come May 2015, he doubled down on a strategy that was anything but long-term.

It was a plan based on short-term targets for short-term political gain.

Focused on tax giveaways on the very richest

On deeper, increasingly unnecessary cuts in welfare and support for the working poor.

On slashing support for renewables, undermining a new British green industry revolution.

And on setting economic targets that required severe cuts in spending on infrastructure- on the roads, rail, broadband, schools and hospitals.

The very tools people need to keep our economy competitive.

From May 2015 onwards George Osborne hollowed out the economic recovery.

He turned away from the Coalition’s work to put the economy on a path to recovery and instead embarked down a road he hoped would lead him to Downing Street.

…Unfortunately for him it led directly off a cliff.

He suffered a backlash, led by the Liberal Democrats, over his plans to cut Tax Credits.

He proposed plans to hit disabled people so hard even Iain Duncan Smith couldn’t stomach it.

And while job figures and headline economic figures continued to flatter him, underneath the surface we saw the construction sector enter recession, housing starts flattened, and the Bank of England downgraded forecasts for wages, growth and inflation.

…and then Brexit happened.

Let’s be clear, Brexit poses the biggest existential threat to the long-term prospects of our economy in a generation.

Despite what David Davies or Boris Johnson will tell you about a ‘Brexit bounce back’, the underlying picture is already much, much worse than it was on June 22nd.

The pound has plummeted and stayed down- making all of us poorer.

Manufacturing output has had three successive month on month falls as a result of the uncertainty- with the last, immediately post Brexit fall being the biggest fall yet this year.

And the costs faced by businesses importing raw materials to the UK is already increasing rapidly… ultimately ensuring consumers will have to pay more.

And all this has real impacts on people’s lives.

And that is before you even consider the future of the thousands of hard working EU citizens running businesses, creating jobs and paying taxes here in the UK.

Conference, Brexit is casting us into an economic storm and the Government’s short sighted management of our economy means we are sailing on a raft made of twigs.

Three have already fallen off the raft- Cameron, Osborne and Gove.

Boris has a natural buoyancy.

You know, when I hear Boris, I’m always reminded of the late, great Gene Wilder… and it’s not just the ridiculous hair.

It’s that his referendum campaign was essentially ‘Come with me, and you’ll be, in a world of pure imagination’.

So, the three Oompa Lompa’s of politics- Boris, Davies and Fox, rolled out the old Prime Minister, and in his place now stands Theresa May.

And, say it quietly, her rhetoric on her first day was almost encouraging.

She said that her mission was to make ‘Britain a country that works for everyone’…

‘When we take the big calls, we’ll think not of the powerful, but of you.”

Inspiring words- but from the moment they left her lips her actions have done anything but.

From appointing a Secretary of State for Work and Pensions who believes the minimum wage is “actively immoral” to proposing a return to an education system where young people’s futures are determined at age 11, she is leading a True Blue, Tory Government for the few not the many.

And almost nowhere is it more obvious than in her appointment of Philip Hammond as her Chancellor.

I don’t know how much you know about Philip Hammond, but I wouldn’t hold your breath.

He makes a point of keeping a low profile.

And since taking on the second biggest job in Government he has pretty much disappeared.

He has left us, during the most tumultuous economic times since at least 2008, without any sense of the Government’s economic strategy.

He abandoned George Osborne’s ludicrous and unnecessary plans for a budget surplus by 2020, but has done nothing to suggest an alternative.

While the Governor of the Bank of England (thank goodness for Mark Carney) raced to prop up a faltering economy, the Chancellor has done nothing but offer the most basic of assurances to key sectors of our economy.

While experts predict a downturn, and new black-holes in public spending, he has hidden away and left businesses, public sector workers and the public to wait.

So we are left to look into his history for some clues as to what our new Chancellor’s priorities will be- to look at what he has said in the past.

And what it shows is not a man who will think of the poor, the voiceless or the general public first.

It shows someone whose first, and only, economic priority is the wealthy elite.

For example, while in opposition, the then Tory Shadow Chief Secretary, claimed that public sector workers aren’t ‘dreading cuts’, because they in fact feel ‘a sense of liberation’.

I’m sure those public workers facing yet further pay freezes under this Government are feeling happy with their new found freedom.

On welfare spending he said that there should be further cuts to social security spending, in order to fund increased spending on defence.

On what to do in the face of a falling pound- well – in the past he has claimed the best thing to do when exchange rates fall is to ‘ease the regulatory burden on businesses’.

More Conservative plans to cut regulations that protect employees and consumers.

When it comes to standing up to those who refuse to pay their fair share in tax- can Philip Hammond deliver on this?

Well, despite being one of the richest MPs in Parliament, it was reported by Channel 4’s Dispatches programme in 2010, that he has done “a Philip Green” and transferred shares to his wife – which can have the happy co-incidence of reducing one’s tax bill.

Certainty not illegal, but is it really the actions of a man willing to put the interests of Britain first, let alone to launch a crusade against corporate tax avoidance?

He too is no fan of the minimum wage- claiming, when it was introduced that it amounted to ‘a tax on business.’

And just two weeks ago he told everyone not to worry about Freedom of Movement- because he would guarantee that bankers from the EU would be able to continue to live and work in the UK.

Just bankers- and maybe a few other wealthy individuals.

Not the thousands of Europeans living, working and paying tax in our country.

The entrepreneurs and small businesses owners, nurses and teachers, the people who pick our strawberries or anyone else.

Just for those most wealthy people.

A divisive society rather than an open, tolerant and united one.

An economy that works not for everyone, but for the select few.

So let’s be clear.

Whatever Theresa May might say, the man she has appointed to deliver an economy that works for everyone, is a man whose every thought and action speaks of a wealthy elite, a shrunken state and a do as you please economy.

And that can only lead to one thing- just at the time when we will need economic dynamism and creativity we will have deadlock and stagnation.

The Chancellor and the Prime Minister need to be a partnership- committed to the same vision and the same goals.

At least Blair and Brown were fellow travellers, May and Hammond can’t even agree on a destination.

And yet, when, on November 23rd at his first Autumn Statement, Philip Hammond looks across the Dispatch Box, who will he see staring back?

Labour’s failures as an opposition are many, but nowhere is it more damaging than their ability to present a real economic alternative to the Conservatives.

Instead of offering insight they attack business.

They sneer at those who run businesses, and seem content to refight the battles of the 1980s when it was the bosses versus the unions.

Just recently he proposed scrapping a £1 billion tax allowance for research that supports companies developing new medicines.

In the 21st Century, when our economy is more reliant than ever before on new ideas and innovation, these are the actions of someone with a dislike for business.

McDonell has even, suggested that one of Britain’s most celebrated entrepreneurs, Sir Richard Branson, should lose his knighthood – in petty retaliation against Branson’s criticism of Jeremy Corbyn’s ability to find a seat on a train.

But most importantly of all, when it comes to our vital membership of the Single Market, he and Jeremy Corbyn want us to return to a little island, closed to free trade and the economic benefits it can bring.

When we need the country to look out and forwards, he is dwelling on the internal Labour wars of the past.

And I for one find it so frustrating, because never has it been more important to have a Party that’s focused on the next 5, 10, 20 years of our future.

And that means it’s up to us.

But to do so we must challenge not just the Government, not just the Labour Party, but ourselves.

We must become the Party for those who want to succeed, but who want to see no one left behind.

To start with, we need to protect the economic wellbeing of the youngest generations- something successive Government have often failed to do.

In the last 20 years, the average household income of those under 29 have fallen by 2%, while that of those over 70 has increased by 66%.

This isn’t about pitting one generation against another- young people will be old one day too, and (surprise surprise) I care about the lives of my kids and grandchildren.

We should be proud of what we’ve done for older people- ensuring there is a decent, flat rate pension, fighting, as Norman Lamb has done, for a New Deal on the care system, so no one has to sell their home to pay for care – a deal now quietly dropped by the Conservatives, and ensuring the poorest pensioners get extra to help with heating costs when it’s cold.

But ensuring older people have a decent life should not mean foisting all the burden on the younger generations.

Young adults suffered the most joblessness and the greatest wage compression of any group during the recession.

The disposable incomes of young adults have lagged well behind the rest of society.

The big costs in life – education, housing and securing a pension – all cost significantly more than they did for my generation.

As Paul Johnson of the Institute of Fiscal Studies has said, the growing gap between young and old will fuel wider inequality in society because youngsters with rich parents would retain unfair advantage in the important years of early adulthood.

He recently said “it’s become more and more important that your parents happen to have a house”.

Conference, it’s our job to reverse that trend.

To ensure that everyone has the skills, resources and support they need to take advantage of opportunity.

That the circumstances of your birth do not make the difference as to whether you can buy your own home, get a decent job or attend a first class school

And Conference, to do so we need to ensure that balancing the needs of different generations sits right at the heart of the way our Government runs.

That is why last Friday I tabled a Bill in the House of Lords which would require any new spending rules set by the Government to consider the need to balance the taxation and spending burden across the needs of different generations.

We need an economy which works for us all- not one that works for a Tory election in 2020.

Conference, our second priority must be to address the chronic lack of investment in infrastructure.

At a time of historically low interest rates we should be seeking to invest in building the roads, schools and hospitals we need.

And perhaps most importantly, we need to build the houses our county needs.

Putting a roof over everyone’s head is not just a moral imperative but an economic one.

We cannot go on building only half of the 150,000 homes we need each year.

We need to double that number.

And that includes affordable rental and social housing.

A sector gutted by Conservative policies.

I support home owners, but renters, let us tell the Tories are people too.

That is why my Private Member’s Bill also includes rules requiring the Government to prioritise infrastructure spending- ensuring that future generations have the tools they need to compete.

And it is also why I believe we should start, by putting up to an extra £45 billion directly into house building over the next 5 years.
Enough to build the homes we need, and give everyone the stability they need to take advantage of opportunities.

And finally Conference there is a new and rising challenge that we need to face if we are to build an economy truly fit for the future.
The rise of AI and machine learning.

What was science fiction just a few years ago is increasingly a reality- and it will have huge implications for the way we live and work.

From self-driving cars to automated customer services, this revolution can have huge advantages for our economy and our lives.

But we also need to ensure that no one is left behind in such a revolution.

Conference, this challenge is coming, and we aren’t just talking unskilled Labour.

There will be challenges for many of those in society who have traditionally felt safe from automisation.

I’ll give you an example- in the last year one of the biggest financial institutions in this country has been training its automated systems to handle not just routine but complex customer facing services.

Every time one of its highly skilled, highly paid employees in the 50 strong team made a decision about how to help a client, the machine made a parallel decision.

And every time the machine got a decision wrong, the skilled employee would correct it, so that it learnt from its mistakes.

As of now that team of 50 is reduced to 10.

Thankfully, in such a big organisation there are ways to reallocate those staff.

But it shows the scale of the challenges to come.

If Government is not alive to the challenge, we risk a repeat of what happened in great industrial towns across our country in the 1970s happening all over again.

And that means a Government willing to really invest in helping people transition into the new economy by embracing life-long learning, and putting serious investment into ensuring that those whose jobs are at risk are given the opportunities they need develop new skills and careers.

It also means being aware of the potential for exploitation that may come as a result of this transition.

We have some incredibly good businesses in this country, but frankly we have some pretty awful employers too.

And can you imagine the Philip Green or Mike Ashley view of how automation should affect their business?

No more pesky employment rights for staff.

No more payroll taxes or costly pension schemes.

No more bad publicity for exploiting zero hour contracts or cutting pay.

Moving to the future economy means protecting employees from these kind of unscrupulous employers.

And that means rediscovering as a Party our passion for different forms of company ownership.

To re-embrace our reformist zeal for the mutual movement, the community benefit company and employee owned businesses.

It also means understanding that in the businesses of the future the old employer versus employee relationship will become increasingly irrelevant.

The gig economy, as they call it, self-employed entrepreneurs and contractors are now a growing part of the workforce.

But we cannot let this turn into exploitation.

For example- how do we ensure the Uber driver gets access to maternity leave?

How does the self-employed programmer ensure that, if sick, he or she can make ends meet?

Conference, if we are to build an economy fit for the future these are the questions we must answer.

That is why I am so pleased the Party has set up the 21st Century economy working group- led by the excellent Julia Church and Mike Tuffrey, who can look at how we build an economy where people have a stake in their work they do and reap the economic reward.

I believe that, to be the part of the future we must tackle these questions head on, and that is why addressing the transition of a machine economy must be the third plank of our economic rules for the future.

Conference, during Coalition we proved that we are an economically credible party.

Since leaving it the Conservatives have proved they are anything but.

Our country lacks both leadership and opposition at a time when it desperately needs both.

By embracing a vision of a better future, one focused on tackling inter-generational fairness, investing in infrastructure and ensuring no one is left behind by the changes working lives we can build an economy fit for the future.