We are now two and a half years into a five-year parliament. The most important five years in the modern history of our party. What we have done and what we will do in these five years will define who we are and change the direction of our country. There have been some real highs and more than a few lows. But it’s only half time and there is all to play for.
These five years are important for us as Liberal Democrats because we are no longer a party that just talks about change, but one that can actually deliver change. They are important for everyone who believes in plural politics, that people are better served when their leaders put their differences aside and work together.
And they are important, above all else, because the country is at a crossroads. These are some of the most uncertain economic times anyone can remember. It is in dark times that countries can turn in on themselves. Fear can turn people against each other. How we respond as a country will decide if we go into the future as an open, confident and outward looking country or an insular, fearful and divided one.
But for the first time we are not watching from the sidelines as the country’s fate is played out. Liberal Democrats are right there at the heart of government. Making a difference to people’s lives. Steering the country to a better future. We belong in government because we share the same values as the British people.
Just look at the qualities we displayed as a country this summer: unity; generosity; diversity; openness; community; fair play. Look at the heroes we celebrated: Jessica Ennis –a mixed race woman from Sheffield who conquered the world with grace and humility. What a role model she is. And Mo Farah – what a wonderful thing it says about us as a country that we have taken an immigrant called Mohammed to our hearts. At a press conference Mo Farah was asked whether he would have preferred to run for Somalia. He said ‘Listen mate, this is my country’. And in a single sentence every argument the BNP and the EDL have ever put forward was crushed. This is his country. This is all of our country.
These are difficult times. People are really struggling. Fear and worry are a fact of life for too many. But this summer has shown that our better nature can trump our darker instincts. Unity can trump division. Hope can trump fear. At our best, Great Britain is open, generous and proudly diverse. In a word: liberal.
So what does it mean to have Liberal Democrats in power? We are only half way through this parliament and already we have cut taxes for working people and lifted the poorest workers out of paying Income Tax. Already the Pupil Premium and the expansion of early years education are making a real difference to the lives of our children. Already we have created a record number of apprenticeships. We have put in place a Youth Contract to help young people earn or learn. Set the toughest climate change targets yet. Created a revolutionary Green Investment Bank. Announced the most ambitious home insulation programme the UK has ever seen. We have taxed the banks to the tune of £10bn. We have ended child detention. We have increased the state pension. We are giving every couple, whatever their gender, the right to commit and celebrate their love through marriage. We have done these things because we have fought for them.
And we have stopped the like-for-like replacement of Trident in this parliament and have started the search for alternatives which will continue to keep our country safe. But, where possible, at a lower cost to the British people. And on that, I want to pay tribute to the pioneering work Nick Harvey has done. I want to assure you we are going to build upon his good work. That’s why I have decided to put Danny Alexander in charge of the review into the replacement for Trident. Danny has spoken out repeatedly about how expensive and unnecessary a like-for-like replacement would be. And there is no one better when it comes to getting value for money for the taxpayer. I am more determined than ever to find the right alternative to such a monumentally expensive replacement for a Cold War deterrent.
So when our critics tell us we have sold out, that we have achieved nothing, tell them this: Britain will be a greener, fairer, better place because of what we have done and what we will do.
We chose to govern with our political opponents because our country needed a stable government at a critical time. Not because it was easy but because it was right. That is still true. We have avoided an economic catastrophe. We have steadied the ship. Now we must set it sailing. And as we do so Liberal Democrats will not stop fighting to make this government and this country fairer.
One of the most important ways we can do that is by making taxes fairer. It’s just wrong that people on low and middle incomes who work hard and play by the rules are taxed so much while Russian oligarchs pay the same council tax as some of you do on a family home. Liberal Democrats are fighting to change that. Lower taxes on work and more on unearned wealth. I want to reward people who put in a proper shift, not those who sit on a fortune. People for whom a bonus means a few extra quid at Christmas not a million pound windfall. By April we will have lifted two million of the poorest workers out of paying Income Tax altogether. We have brought in tough new taxes on the very rich and cut taxes for millions of working people by £550. But we need to go further.
It is no secret that we have different priorities to our coalition partners. I can do my bit around the cabinet table, but most of the seats at that table are occupied by Conservatives, not Liberal Democrats. So I need you to do your bit the old fashioned way: getting out there and campaigning. You should have been given a leaflet about our campaign for fairer taxes. By the end of the year I want you to have delivered three million of them. Campaign hard and we will deliver fairer taxes.
This is the first time anyone in modern Britain has experienced a national coalition government. We must show them it is a form of government that works well for them. If we don’t we will have lost not only the argument for having Liberal Democrats in power but for having a third party at all. The country will revert to the two-party system that has served it so badly in recent years. But if we succeed, we will have done something remarkable. We will have broken the two-party stranglehold on British politics. We will have created a new model of modern plural politics for our country. And we will have created a platform for ourselves and those that follow us from which we can go further than we ever thought possible.
We are proving that coalition works. But we need discipline. Yes, we must show people that we are different from our coalition partners. But if all people see is squabbling then they will think coalition is a messy, incoherent thing. We must not put the progress we have made in jeopardy by retreating to our comfort zone. I know that as a party of political reform, the defeats we have had to accept on AV and reform of the House of Lords have been hard to take. But the biggest prize for political modernisers will not be a Bill on the statute book. It will be the proof, in the eyes of the British people, that coalition politics works and that three-party politics is here to stay.
It’s half time and as we look ahead at the second half of this parliament, we should take a moment to look at our opponents. Look at the Labour Party: Divided, deluded and with no sense of direction. With nothing to show for themselves but a piece of paper that is still blank after two and a half years. As we approach the second half, my message to Labour is this: Tell us who you are. Tell the country what you are for, not just what you are against.
Labour have had a lot of fun at my expense in recent days because of the apology I made. There are some pretty big things I think people would like to hear them apologise for. How about a personal apology from you Ed Balls for nearly bankrupting the country after you went on a prawn cocktail charm offensive in the City of London to let the banks off the hook? And how about, Ed Miliband, an apology, on behalf of your party, for dragging our country into an unjust and illegal war in Iraq?
My message to those Conservative backbench MPs who seem to think they have the right to force a turbo-charged right wing agenda on our country is this: You didn’t win the last election. You do not have a majority. The British people have not given you the right to act like you do. We formed this coalition in good faith and for the good of the country at a time of crisis. That required compromise on both sides. Liberal Democrats have kept our side of the bargain. You must too.
It’s half time in this parliament. There were times in the first half when we as a party made errors. And we’ve learned some hard lessons. When the second half is over we will emerge with a few scars. But we will be able to tell people the things we have achieved. Whether it is in school, in work or in retirement, we are showing people we are a party that shares their values: Fairness; openness; compassion; equality; community; diversity.
If there’s one lesson we should take from the first half it is that nothing comes easy. If we want a fairer Britain we have to fight for it. If we want fairer taxes we have to campaign for them. And if we want credit for what we are doing then we have to go out there with our heads held high and tell people. No one else will do it for us.
These five years are the most important our party has ever faced. Now it’s time for the second half. Let’s go out there and show the country what we’re made of.