Today, 16th July 2015, the Liberal Democrats elect a new leader, and Nick Clegg joins that illustrious band of Bob McLennan, Paddy Ashdown, Charles Kennedy and Sir Menzies Campbell as a former Leader of the Liberal Democrats.
On the day when the Liberal Democrats will choose a new leader to take the party out of obscurity and back to the heart of British Politics, where it belongs, I thought it appropriate to reflect on the past five years, and look forward to the battles ahead.
It seems like forever, but it was only five years ago that the United Kingdom was on the brink of financial ruin. The recession that started in 2008 was getting deeper and when the Liberal Democrats Chief Sectretary to the Treasury looked in his desk drawer he found a note from Liam Byrne, his Labour predecessor, that summed up the state Labour had left the nation’s finances in, it simply read ‘there’s no money left’.
But the state of the national finances was not the only mess that Labour left behind. Our schools were in chaos, our health service was killing people, our police were gathering more and more powers over the citizen and our press was out of control, our MP’s were fiddling their expenses, we were embroiled in an illegal war in Iraq and Britain was in a state of democratic as well as financial crisis.
During its thirteen years in power Labour had sold half the national gold reserve at is cheapest price, paid pensioners the lowest increase in history, introduced tuition fees and top-up fees, introduced the bedroom tax for private sector tenants, relaxed banking controls, sucked up to the Murdock Empire and turned an ethical foreign policy into an illegal war in Iraq with no apparent way out. The Labour Government was in the process of sacrificing the civil liberties hard fought for over two centuries of social reform by introducing a national ID card, a snoopers charter and they had already run roughshod over the provisions of Oxford and the law of precedent with the introduction of ASBO’s.
Labour lost the 2010 General Election badly; they lost over 100 seats and were in no position to form a new government, even a coalition government. The Unionist Parties of Northern Ireland plus the Conservative Party in the rest of the UK had more seats than Labour plus the Lib Dems, a simple piece of Mathematics that Labour supporters and many former Lib Dem supporters simply do not acknowledge.
What’s more Labour had lost the moral right to govern; they had betrayed the very people they were established to protect. The only working class member of the Labour Party anywhere near the shadow cabinet was Alan Johnson. Even the most left wing candidate for their leadership in 2010, Diane Abbott, was Grammar School and then Cambridge educated.
The Liberal Democrats went into coalition with our eyes open and fully aware of the damage that would be done to the party. Liberal Democrats are not the sort of patriots who shout abuse at neigbouring countries, or blame others for the ills of our country, we are the sort of patriots who will stand by our country even if it means sacrificing our own personal interests, and that is what we chose do do.
Nick Clegg knew, when he took his party into coalition with the Tories, that he was like a world war one captain about to take his troops over the tops of the trenches, and very few would survive, but the Nation needed the Liberal Democrats to step up to the mark and play a part in Government. If we hadn’t then we would be living in a very different country today.
The alternative to the coaltion was a minority Tory Government which would have had the backing of the Labour Party on so many illiberal measures such as 48 days detention without charge, extraordinary rendition of prisoners, children of asylum seekers being imprisoned in camps, a National ID card, the snooper’s charter, British Troops on the Ground in more and more Arab States, uncapped tuition fees and no grants for the poorest students, no tripple lock on pensions and no tax reductions for the poorest citizens through the raising of the tax threshold.
Above all the one measure that can help alleviate poverty in the long term, funding to enable the children from the poorest backgrounds the educational help they need enabke them to benefit from a good education through the pupil premium would have been lost.
When people consider the coalition years they should stop thinking about what we could not achieve, it was not a Liberal Democrat Government, what people should instead consider is what we did achieve. For five years we held back the authoritarian state that both Labour and Tories represent.
There is a lot that the Coalition did that the Liberal Democrats should be proud of, and as for the things that the party doesnt like, well lets be clear on this they were never going to get everything in their manifesto, over 60% isnt bad going.
- 3 million people have been lifted out of paying tax due to the increase in the tax threshold to £ 10,500. Remember, David Cameron said that this policy was unaffordable, but the Liberal Democrats delivered on it;
- The pupil premium has improved the opportunity for thousands upon thousands of children from the poorest families to get a decent start in life, another policy David Cameron told us was unaffordable;
- The Leveson inquiry has reported on journalists hacking the phones of ordinary citizens, and senior editors and journalists involved in the scandal have faced prison sentences, something we were told was inconceivable;
- The Prime Minister no longer has the power to set the date of a General Election to suit his party, and more powers are being devolved from Westminster to local government, something we are told is impossible;
- Local authorities have taken the lead in massive co-operative power-supplier switches, saving thousands of citizens hundreds of pounds, and thanks to the Liberal Democrats Co-operative and Community Benefit Societies became a business model in their own right in 2014, a 70 year old promise finally kept;
- Same sex partners can now marry, often referred to as equal marriage but this is a misnoma as there are still issues such as the spousal veto for trans people which need to be addressed.
- Labour told us that the only way we would get Metrolink expansion was through introducing a congestion charge. The Liberal Democrats in Government delivered a bigger Metrolink expansion than Labour proposed, and without a congestion charge;
- The Airport Business Zone has already begun to deliver some of the 20,000 new jobs that it is predicted will be delivered there;
- Education funding in the city has been increased before the pupil premium; if we include the pupil premum millions more has been invested in Manchester’s education;
- Funding was found by Central Government for the introduction of 20mph zones in many of our residential areas;
- Over £80 million has been put back into the pockets of Manchester Tax Payers through the rise in the basic tax threshold;
- Manchester Pensioners have benefitted from the highest increase in pensions ever thanks to the Liberal Democrat tripple lock on pensions;
- Manchester University has received millions of pounds of investment into the Graphene facilities, its medical research and Jodrell Bank, creating local jobs and services;
- Not a single schools for the future programme in the City was cancelled;
- The City’s health budget has been increased (it was being underfunded by the last government);
- Thousands of young Mancunians have benefitted from apprenticeships, another Lib Dem flagship programme; and
- Devo-Manc, putting control of our health, housing, social care, transport and many other decisions formerly made in whitehall into the hands of local politicians will be happening by 2017.
There is so very much more that the Liberal Democrats have achieved in Government which when you consider that they had only 8% of the seats in parliament is not bad, bt what has also been achieved is that the party has laid the foundations in the minds of the public as to what we are about.
Ours is not a party of dependency, be that dependency on an employer under the Conservatives or depenency on the State under Labour; the Liberal Democrats are about enabling people to run their own lives and to get on in life.
There is an old Chinese proverb:
“If you give a man a fish you feed him for a day, if you teach a man to fish you feed him for a lifetime.”
In everything the Liberal Democrats did in Government we demonstrated that we are about teaching men to fish, enabling people to manage their own lives, to feed their own children and to influence their own futures.
The only way to alleviate poverty is through education, and measures such as the pupil premium, the free school meals, the apprenticeships schemes and so on demonstrate the commitment Liberal Democrats have to tackling poverty, not just by meeting the needs of those in poverty today, but by educating people out of poverty tomorrow.
So then to the legacy of the Clegg years, the Party has more members than when he took over as leader, it has a much clearer direction, it has experience of government and it is more in tune with modern Britain than it has ever been.
It may seem strange that we are feeling so up-beat right now but the simple truth is that the Liberal Democrats are once again right where we should be, at the heart of our communities, fighting for the rights of the people we represent and campaigning for social, economic and environmental justice.
Let me make absolutely clear that we are in this position today because of the decisions that Nick Clegg took at the Leader of this Party. When Nick Clegg stood down as Leader of the Liberal Democrats he sounded a rally cry to the cause of Liberalism, and over 16,000 people have so far responded.
When Nick steps down as Leader tomorrow it is of a party that is bigger, better organised, more professional and more ready for battle than when he took the helm. What’s more he steps down as leader of a party of Government, a party that has show what it really is all about.
It has been written by many that history will be kind to Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats, and today is when that history begins.