Liberal Democrat Conference 2011: Nick Clegg Focuses On Economy In Final Conference Speech
Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg has used his keynote speech at the party conference in Birmingham to promise delegates that his party "will do more for growth and for jobs".
The deputy prime minister said that his party had been "vilified like never before" in Westminster, but stood united to take the tough decisions that other parties were unable or unwilling to do.
"We’ve lost support, we’ve lost councillors, and we lost a referendum. I know how painful it has been to face anger and frustration on the doorstep," Clegg said. "Some of you may have even wondered: Will it all be worth it in the end? It will be."
However Clegg also offered a rallying call to activists, and celebrated what he said was a raft of policy victories.
"Just look at what we’ve announced in the last five days," he said. "After decades of campaigning, and thanks to Lynne Featherstone. Equal marriage, straight or gay. More power for consumers over the energy companies. Calling time on rewards for failure in boardrooms. Investing in education for girls in developing countries. New powers to turn empty homes back into family homes. A five hundred million pound investment in growth. Liberal achievements from a liberal party of government."
Focusing for much of the speech on the economy, Clegg offered no hint at a 'plan B'. Instead he said that measures such as "reducing red tape", "promoting skills" and "getting the banks lending" would help to put the country back on the right track.
"The outlook for the global economy has got worse. So we need to do more, we can do more, and we will do more for growth and for jobs."
"Because we’re not in politics just to repair the damage done by Labour, to glue back together the pieces of the old economy. We are here to build a new economy. A new economy safe from casino speculation."
While Clegg offered few specifics policy changes, he mentioned investments in green technology, increasing the number of apprenticeships and cutting taxes for low-income workers.
Clegg also said that he wanted to see voters 'paid back' for bailing out the banks:
"Which is why when we come to sell those bank shares, I want to see a payback to every citizen. Your money was put at risk. Your money was used to bail out the banks. And so the money made by the banks is your money, too."
The Lib Dem leader stayed clear of attacks by some of his colleagues, including party president Tim Farron, on his Conservative coalition partners. Instead he rounded on Labour leader Ed Miiband and shadow chancellor Ed Balls, who he said were the "back room boys" refusing to take responsibility for their party's actions in government.
"Labour says the Government is going too far, too fast. I say, Labour would have offered too little, too late. Imagine if Ed Miliband and Ed Balls had still been in power. Gordon Brown’s backroom boys when Labour was failing to balance the books, failing to regulate the financial markets, and failing to take on the banks. The two Eds, behind the scenes, lurking in the shadows, always plotting, always scheming, never taking responsibility. At this time of crisis what Britain needs is real leadership."
Clegg added that "this is no time for the back room boys", in an echo of the 2010 election jibe by Gordon Brown that "this is no time for amateurs".
"Labour’s economy was based on bad debt and false hope. Labour got us into this mess. But they are clueless about how to get us out. Another term of Labour would have been a disaster for our economy. So don’t for a moment let Labour get away with it. Don’t forget the chaos and fear of 2008.
"And never, ever trust Labour with our economy again."
Clegg also offered a challenge to Labour on party funding, calling for Ed Miliband to accept the recommendations for "radical reform" by the Kelly Report when they are released.
"Of all the claims Ed Miliband has made, the most risible is that his party is the enemy of vested interests," Clegg said. "While we were campaigning for change in the banking system, they were on their prawn cocktail offensive in the City. While we’ve led the charge against the media barons, Labour has cowered before them for decades. The most shocking thing about the news that Tony Blair is godfather to one of Rupert Murdoch’s children is that nobody was really shocked at all."
Adding that "I don’t think the unions should be able to buy themselves a political party", Clegg said that Miliband had to "put his money where his mouth is" and accept calls for reform - despite the precarious financial position that such a move would leave the Labour party in.
On student fees, Clegg did not offer an apology to voters who felt betrayed by his party but said that he had learned from the anger it had created.
"I saw the anger. I understand it. I felt it. I have learned from it. And I know how much damage this has done to us as a party. By far the most painful part of our transition. From the easy promises of opposition to the invidious choices of Government.
"Probably the most important lesson I have learned is this: No matter how hard you work on the details of a policy, it’s no good if the perception is wrong. We can say until we’re blue in the face that no one will have to pay any fees as a student, but still people don’t believe it. That once you’ve left university you’ll pay less, week in week out, than under the current system, but still people don’t believe it."
He added that the LibDems had done "the best thing we could" but had "failed to explain that there were no other easy options".
Clegg also confirmed the much-trailed policy of summer schools for students, arguing that it could help remove some of the frustration and anger that caused the English riots in July.
Under the £50 million plan children will attend "a two-week summer school helping them to catch up in Maths and English, and getting them ready for the challenges ahead" before they start secondary school.
The LibDem leader also paid special attention to his "political passion" of social mobility, arguing that while he had been lucky to attend a good school and have good parents, equal opportunity "should not just be about luck".
"For liberals the only struggles worth having are the uphill ones," Clegg said. "Allowing schools to move poorer children up the queue for admissions. Making universities open their doors to everyone. Making firms work harder to get women on their boards. Breaking open internships. All controversial. All difficult. Not easy, but right."