Welcome to Sheffield . I know we have a full agenda and so many things to be doing here at conference, but I’d like to urge you all to take the opportunity over the weekend to go out and explore.
I am hugely proud of what Paul and his team have achieved here in this great Northern city. They have turned around local schools. They have insulated 13,000 homes free of charge, and they are making Sheffield the first city in the country to generate enough renewable energy to become self-sufficient in 10 year’s time.
Cities like Sheffield will be at the heart of our economic recovery. It will take time and it won’t be easy, but we are building a new economy from the rubble of the old. We will be a country that makes things again, that leads the world in green technologies and trains its young people for the highly skilled jobs of the future.
It is places like Sheffield and South Yorkshire where we will make it happen. The growth we will nurture, the economy we will build, will benefit the whole country, and it is in cities like Sheffield where we are proving that the scaremongering of Labour about council cuts is just that.
Paul Scriven and his team have already proved that cuts can be made responsibly, with a scalpel instead of an axe, without the huge job losses and cuts to frontline services that Labour councils seem to take such glee in making so that they can blame their choices on us. There’s a reason why Sheffield announced 270 compulsory redundancies, while across the Pennines Labour-run Manchester is scrapping 2,000 jobs. There’s a reason why no libraries, swimming pools, public toilets or museums are being closed here in Sheffield, while across the Pennines community facilities are being axed. There’s a reason why Surestart centres and services for vulnerable children and adults have been protected, while across the Pennines frontline services are being slashed. That reason is that Sheffield council is run by Liberal Democrats.
And while we are taking the tough decisions to clear up the mess Labour made of our country, they are offering nothing. They act like the last 13 years didn’t happen. When they try to make you feel guilty for going into a Coalition with the Conservatives in order to clear up their mess, remind them what they left behind: a country on the brink of bankruptcy; banks running amok while Fred Goodwin snapped up a knighthood; locking up innocent children in places like Yarl’s Wood and Dungavel; invading Iraq and lying about why; 28 days’ detention; ID cards.
That was Labour then, and we won’t forget it. So what about Labour now? They have gone from being the party of government to the party of no. No ideas, no leadership and no shame. No regrets, no apologies and no answers. Labour oppose cuts when their own plans would mean £14bn of cuts starting next month. That’s how much it costs to police England and Wales . That’s the entire transport budget. £14bn of cuts and they haven’t got the decency to tell people where the axe will fall. They just won’t come clean, and they won’t come clean on tuition fees either. I know how difficult this issue has been for all of us in this party. We didn’t win the election and with two other parties determined to raise fees, we couldn’t deliver our preferred policy. But while we have wrestled with our conscience over this – Labour have shown themselves to have no conscience at all. They are the party who introduced fees in the first place and hiked them up. They commissioned the Browne Report that recommended no limit to fees at all. But now they pretend they’d ride to the rescue with a graduate tax when everyone knows that’s effectively what we’ve introduced. Labour are in denial, abdicating responsibility and no longer fit to govern.
Of course, government is very different from opposition. Difficult choices, especially at these difficult times, provoke controversy and sometimes protest.And it is not easy for us as a party to be the focus of those protests. Some of our proudest moments have been on marches: against climate change, against child detention, against the illegal war in Iraq .
We’ve put down the placards and taken up the reins of power. It’s a big change but it is worth it.You can’t do everything when you are in power, but you can’t do anything when you are not. With power comes protest. We need to get used to it.
Labour are just shouting from the sidelines. We are in Government doing the hard work to build a freer, fairer and more liberal Britain . Two weeks from today, 900,000 low paid workers will stop paying any income tax at all. And 20 million more will get an extra £200 in their pay packet this year. We are guaranteeing pensioners a fair deal. Never again the indignity of Labour’s 75p increase. Pensioners retiring in April will get on average £15,000 more basic state pension than they would have done under Labour. We are investing billions more in schools and early years education for the poorest children. We are making this government the greenest ever. We have ended the disgrace of child detention. We have scrapped ID cards, replaced control orders and ended 28 days’ detention without charge.
And this May we are offering voters the first chance ever to decide how they elect their MPs. A chance to move beyond the rotten politics of First Past the Post. A chance to end the unfairness of safe seats for life. To fix politics after the expenses scandals, to make MPs work harder, to make votes count and to put power where it belongs – not with politicians but with people. It’s a small change that will make a big difference.
The No campaign have to ignore the facts because the facts are on our side. They claim it’s too complicated, but AV is as simple as 1-2-3. We use it to elect the Mayor of London. They’ve used it in Australia for 90 years. It’s the system that won Colin Firth and Helena Bonham-Carter their Oscars. AV is even simple enough for the Labour Party to use to elect their leaders. The Conservatives used a form of AV to elect David Cameron. AV is one of the big issues where David Cameron and I disagree, but we are working together in coalition every day.
But we are not the only ones working hard. Steve Webb for example: the living embodiment of Alarm Clock Britain.You know, for a while Steve was the first person in the Department for Work and Pensions every day. Civil servants started turning up for work in the morning and finding that the pensions minister was in the building on his own, already hard at work. So they had to start turning up to work earlier, which I’m sure they are very grateful for.
Then there’s Paul Burstow. Paul told me about a visit he made to a carers’ centre in Oldham . One of the carers came up to him and said: ‘I remember you saying years ago that your biggest ambition in politics was to be improve social care. So how does it feel to be the minister responsible?’And Paul told him just how good it felt to sign a cheque for an extra £2bn for social care.
We have ministers across government; like Vince Cable, Chris Huhne, Mike Moore, Danny Alexander, Andrew Stunell, Ed Davey, Norman Baker, Tom McNally, David Heath, Jeremy Browne, Nick Harvey, Lynne Featherstone and Sarah Teather.
Do you notice something about that list? There are only two women on it. As Equalities Minister, Lynne is fighting to make Britain a country where everyone can enjoy the same opportunities – gay or straight, male or female. And Sarah is making a huge difference to the lives of children and their parents. Delivering the Pupil Premium and extending free early years education to the poorest children and dedicating herself to improving care for children with special educational needs. We have some exceptional women in Parliament: Lorely Burt, Tessa Munt, Jo Swinson, Jenny Willott and Annette Brooke – the female Parliamentarian of the Year no less – but we don’t have enough. I wish I could tell you about the great work of our ethnic minority MPs, but I can’t. We don’t have any.
Our party is too male and too pale. I wish it wasn’t the case, but it is. There are many challenges facing our party over the next few years. But we must not lose sight of the need to make our party more representative of our country. If we want to represent modern Britain , modern Britain must be represented in us. That’s why, when you vote on tomorrow’s motion on improving the diversity of our candidates, I urge you to vote in favour. We have to do better, and I know we can.
As we prepare for the May elections there are doomsayers who are predicting the worst for us. They’re wrong. Hold your nerve, keep your heads high. We have a great story to tell. We are facing up to the huge challenges in this country when it would have been easier to duck out. We have shown the strength to take difficult decisions in the national interest. But more than that, we are making Britain a fairer, freer and greener country. A country that leads the world in green technologies. Where work always pays, where pensioners can look forward to a decent retirement, where wealth is spread across the regions. A country that can once again be proud of its civil liberties. A country where every child, no matter their background gets the fair start they deserve. That’s why I joined the party. That’s why you joined the party. That’s why we deliver those leaflets. That’s why we knock on those doors. That’s the difference you make.