Well, Conference, what a year!
I feel as though I keep speaking to you at the Autumn Conference in some form of Groundhog Day loop and once again, I am amazed at your dedication, energy and commitment to rise to these extraordinary political times.
95 years ago David Lloyd George said ‘The world is becoming like a lunatic asylum run by the lunatics.”
I wonder how on earth he would describe our world today:
Trump in the White House, a nuclear North Korea firing missiles left right and centre.
And then there is Brexit and Theresa May.
She’s clearly read the book on populism and is mouthing the words, but it’s as though the lights are on, but there is no-one at home.
I don’t know about you, but for me the shocking lack of humanity and sheer incompetence of the Tories was brutally demonstrated in the UK’s response to Hurricane Irma this week.
Despite days of warnings, including 24 hour coverage all over British TV on US preparations, the Tory Government were taken by surprise by the scale of the damage to the British ‘dependencies’ - the clue is in the name, guys! - including the British Virgin Islands.
Macron had managed to get troops and support there in advance for the French dependencies, just in case. But the UK Government waited until after the event before moving in with help.
Too slow, Boris, too slow.
Then on Thursday it emerged that the Tory Government is now asking the OECD for rules to be changed so that the UK government funding for the most deprived people in the world can now be spent on our own responsibilities, such as British dependencies, because, putting it crudely, the Tories don’t want to spend ‘our’ UK emergency money abroad.
If there was a category 5 storm hurtling towards Maidenhead, I’ll bet you Mrs May would insist on preparation, evacuation and emergency support for rebuilding.
This pettiness says more than anything about the approach of Theresa May and her ministers.
The nasty party is back with a vengeance, starving the NHS of funds, hitting the most vulnerable even further - even the United Nations says their treatment of the disabled is disgraceful.
This also fits with their approach to Brexit.
The May Government is demonstrating their total and utter incompetence in the position papers and the negotiations.
Meanwhile, Corbyn’s Labour profess to fight for the UK, but poodle-like, follow the Tories through the Brexit lobbies.
Liberals have always understood that we do not live in isolation from the wider world, and that it benefits the UK as much as the global world for us to work together.
I’m proud of our Party, because:-
We are the party that in coalition insisted on raising our Foreign Aid spend to 0.7% of GDP, dragging the Tories with us.
We are the only national party fighting for our place in Europe, and holding the Government to account in parliament, unlike Labour.
We are the party fighting for the rights of individuals to be able to keep their data private.
We are the truly radical party - forget the left/right access.
We live in an authoritarian world, where the liberal voice that respects and empowers individuals is being drowned out.
The liberal voice that always challenges and questions authority –(even inside our own party!)- and rightly so.
Violet Bonham-Carter said ‘A Britain without Liberalism would be a Britain that has lost its soul’.
She was right.
But we have to fight for it.
We have to challenge ourselves and raise our game even more.
The party has more members than ever - 103,000, and we managed to increase our MPs in the snap General Election this year.
But we need more MPs, more councillors and a larger share of the vote.
We need more of our newer members running things: local party officers, standing for local council, for regional and state roles too.
I want to hear that the 50% who have joined us since 2015 are being encouraged to come forward.
Some of them aren’t waiting to be asked: just two examples from many:
Your Liberal Britain continues to engage and motivate our members online, and in Wales the newbie groups in Carmarthenshire and in North Flintshire have taken their local parties by storm, with wonderful enthusiasm and vigour.
This is what happens when new members are galvanized locally, and it’s something you can make happen in your area, too.
I want to see more newer faces stepping up to key roles in 2018.
Under Vince Cable’s leadership we are finally being heard by the media.
He is a strong leader, and a serious economic thinker who will put the future of our country, our economy and our young people first.
He is a real political grown up amongst the current pygmies in Government.
Under his leadership, we can make a difference. Together we can change Britain’s future!
The last twelve months have seen the most by-elections back to back for some time.
I want to thank our candidates, their teams, our staff, and all of you who helped: in Witney, which we nearly won with the wonderful
Ross Pepper in Sleaford and North Hykeham,
Zulfiqar Ali standing in Stoke on Trent Central,
Rebecca Hanson flying our flag in Copeland
Jackie Pearcey, who stood in Manchester Gorton (the by-election that never was because of the snap election).
And then, of course, there was Sarah Olney’s brilliant win in Richmond Park. Wasn’t it wonderful to see her take her place so confidently in the House of Commons last autumn.
We wish her well in her new role as Vince’s Chief of Staff, which she starts in ten days’ time.
I know that many of you, whether local, staff, or members travelling to help went above and beyond the call of duty to help in these by-elections.
I thank you!
The same is true of the day to day work going on for the local elections, year in, year out. Despite the exhaustion of the Referendum and by-elections, it was an absolute pleasure to come and campaign with many of you from Cornwall to Scotland, Hertfordshire to Wales via Somerset and Manchester.
Credit must also go to the Association of Liberal Democrat Councillors and Campaigners, their staff and volunteer mentors who work all the year round, so that you can work all the year round to campaign in your local communities.
It’s their 50th anniversary this year, and if you aren’t already a member, but want to learn to campaign locally, go to their stand.
Sal Sal sent you, and sign up.
You don’t need to be a councillor to join.
Many of our MPs started life with ALDC and their local councils before standing for parliament.
And our Liberal Democrat group on the Local Government Association certainly punch above their weight.
Now I want you to think back: where were you on 18 April?
I was on a train heading for Aberdeen & day three of my Scottish local election tour when I had a phone call saying “Do you know what Theresa May is going to say in half an hour?
That calling of the snap election gave this country one of the most frustrating and unpredictable general elections in years.
Once again, you responded brilliantly, with candidates coming forward at short notice, cancelling holidays, asking your employers for unpaid leave, and working with your teams to get our message over.
Once again, our extraordinary political times saw Theresa May go from a confident position way ahead in the polls, to crashing and burning, giving Corbyn an unjustified lifeline and the country a hung parliament.
We improved our seats to 12, including four women, giving us the highest percentage of women MPs in a parliament ever.
It was a delight to welcome back
Jo Swinson, alongside Layla Moran, Christine Jardine and Wera Hobhouse.
Also returning from 2015 were Vince Cable & Ed Davey, with Jamie Stone winning back Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross.
I hear he’s already memorised Erskine May – our very own Liberal answer to Jacob Rees Mogg!
But we also lost Sarah Olney, Mark Williams, Greg Mulholland – all real losses to our team in the Commons.
And then in North East Fife we missed by two votes.
Really pipped at the post!
We also lost Nick Clegg from Parliament.
His departure is a real loss to politics in the UK.
Last week he told the world that his eldest son has been having treatment for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
Those of us who knew at the time are in complete admiration of the way that he and Miriam went on publicly as if nothing had happened, whilst rightly focusing on Antonio.
We wish Antonio a speedy recovery and send our love to all the family.
After the election we had to say farewell to the two Tims.
Tim Farron resigned as Leader, and has just been replaced by Vince Cable.
Tim took the helm picking the party up from the disaster of the 2015 election, with his usual passion, commitment and humility.
Meanwhile Tim Gordon as Chief Executive took the party through an astonishingly volatile five years of coalition, two general elections, two referendums, Welsh, Scottish and local elections, not to mention two Leadership campaigns.
I want to thank them both from the bottom of my heart on your behalf for all they have done.
Now I know I’m starting to sound a bit like Sir Simon Hughes, but each year we reflect on those we have lost from our Lib Dem family.
This year it has felt as if friend after friend has died.
Trevor Jones, or Jones the Vote as he was known to generations of Liberals, was a truly inspirational campaigner who understood how we could connect with our communities and win elections.
He became Leader on Liverpool Council in 1973, and also transformed the way the party campaigned across the country.
We have also lost Helen Wells.
A real character, living her liberal values, she once gave homophobic Liverpool football fans a real ear-wigging in a gay bar in Brussels, dragging them each out by the ear.
I’m told that story typified this fearless and wonderful woman.
Chris Abbott was first elected a councillor in the 1970s, and at his death was the Deputy Mayor of Redcar and Cleveland. He also worked tirelessly for his local party and wider community, keeping them going in the dark days of the 80s.
He also worked for Ian Swales in his constituency office – utterly reliable from first to last.
Jean Gabbitas, the former chair of Lib Dem Christian Forum for several years was an absolute linchpin of the organisation.
Ray Hassall, was a councillor in Perry Barr Ward in Birmingham, and a former Lord Mayor.
Peter Grender brought industry know-how into politics with capability and wisdom yet little ego.
He advised Paddy Ashdown when leader of the Liberal Democrats on branding and messaging and wrote the brief for the bird logo which the Party still has today.
As President and Chair of Kingston Lib Dems for over 30 years his advice was sought by 3 MPs he helped to elect.
Pat Quinton was a councillor for many years on Lancaster City and Lancashire County Councils, with a life marked by public service.
James Davidson was briefly Liberal MP for West Aberdeenshire between1966-1970, but also known and loved for his contribution to his clan (he was the chief) and his community.
He spoke out with authority against Britain entering the Vietnam War.
Michael Sandberg was made a Lib Dem peer in 1997 after a long career in banking, retiring from the Lords in 2015.
Margaret Tompkins was one of those wonderful invisible stalwart members who would step up to the plate when needed, including standing for mo-hope seats in borough elections.
My friend Sarah Smith was our candidate in Dover and Deal in 2015.
Just after selection, she discovered she had stage 3 ovarian cancer. Nothing, but nothing, stopped Sarah doing what she wanted: and she wanted to continue to stand for the Lib Dems despite undergoing harrowing treatment.
She turned up to hustings and was loved by all those who knew her and respected by her political opponents.
She was re-selected to stand in a snap election, but sadly died in November.
People talk about others being brave.
Sarah wouldn’t have recognized that description of herself.
She was determined to make the best of her life, regardless of what it threw at her.
Dennis Saunders from Farnham was the Liberal parliamentary candidate for South West Surrey in 1959, 1964 and 1966, and he worked hard to put the Liberals and later the Lib Dems on the map in the constituency with considerable verve and dedication.
Emily Price who died aged 22 just after being elected as a town councillor in Aberystwyth in May.
She was very active in both the Aberyswtwyth University Young Liberals, and in the Ceredigion local party.
How she managed to find time to excel at her science degree alongside her politics bemused many of us who knew her, and she was due to start a Master’s this term.
The party has been robbed of a brilliant young campaigner and politician, but our loss is nothing to the loss faced by her parents John and Natasha and sisters Katie & Hannah. We send our love and deepest sympathies.
Finally, we remember the extraordinary life of Willie Goodhart who was a founding member of the SDP, and co-author of the original Liberal Democrat constitution.
He believed passionately in social democracy, human rights and the rule of law, working as a much respected barrister and member of the House of Lords.
He won the respect of everyone he worked with, and we will remember him with great fondness.
One thing bound all these people together. They believed - as Thomas Paine put it so aptly over 200 years ago - “We have it within our power to begin our world over again.
To the families and friends of all of these outstanding Liberals and Lib Dems we send our condolences, and thank them for lending them to us to help create a liberal Britain and a liberal world.
You know - every year, reading out the names of those we have lost – it strikes me that there is one thread running through each of their stories.
They were all motivated by a passion to serve their Party, and their country.
They never stopped fighting for that dream of a liberal Britain.
Their stories serve as an example, to inspire us, to spur us on to keep fighting the good fight, and you will know others like them.
These last two years we have taken a battering, and we can all-too-easily start feeling deflated, disheartened, demotivated.
But that’s not how Liberals react.
That’s not how these Liberals reacted!
They took up the banner, and kept fighting and fighting and fighting, no matter what.
That fire that burned in their hearts to bring about liberal change, it burns in our hearts, too.
Each and every one of us in this hall and in the wider party has the capacity to change our country for the better, from our local communities, to Parliament and beyond.
We all can and must fight, together, to bring about liberalism in Britain today.
So I read these names and hear these stories and I vow, here and now, that I will not give up the fight.
I will not allow our country to take the path to ruin, to ignore the oppressed, to destroy
our children’s future –
No, I will not give up.
And nor will you.
Because the future of our country rests in our hands.