Liberal Democrats

Read Jo Swinson's Speech to #LDConf in full

Deputy Leader Jo Swinson addresses conference - read her full speech!

By Liberal Democrats, Sep 16, 2018 2:09

Read Jo Swinson's speech to Autumn Conference in Brighton in full:

Conference, this week we’ve seen a little piece of history in the making.  When I took Gabriel to the closing speeches about proxy voting, it was the first time a baby had attended a House of Commons debate.

It was also the first time the words “up-the-back poo explosion” have appeared in Hansard, though given the way Brexit’s going, I suspect that won’t be the last.

But conference, doesn’t time fly? It feels like only yesterday that Duncan and I were conspiring to change the rules to allow us to carry Andrew through the voting lobby when he was a baby.

Now Andrew has joined thousands of other little children, wide-eyed with excitement and a touch of nerves, drowning in their huge uniforms with pristine school bags on their first day at primary school.

It’s a moment for proud parents to remember - we’ve all got that photograph somewhere, haven’t we? 

And as he settles in to school, I’ve been reflecting on what we teach our children it means to be a member of the community.  The school sets out clearly the values they instil and the behaviour they expect: respect each other, try your best, take responsibility for your actions, and care for others, because every single person matters.  Live by those rules, and you’ll be ok.

Frankly, it’s sound advice whatever your age.

But I worry that this basic truth, the underpinning of our shared responsibility to one another across society, has broken down.

From a young age we are told that if we study hard. If we work hard. In return we will earn a good wage so we can put food on the table and have a roof over our head.

There will be good schools for our children, and doctors and nurses to look after us when we’re sick.  Then when we’re old, we’ll have security and dignity in retirement.

That’s the deal. That’s what we call the ‘social contract’. Unwritten but fundamental.

But right here, right now, in 2018, in the world’s fifth-largest economy, at the height of a technological revolution, that deal is broken.

Just last month, one of my constituents told me about how her neighbour, let’s call her Rosie, is struggling to get back on her feet.

Having managed to get herself and her daughter out of an abusive relationship, Rosie now faces a cruel and unnecessary five-week wait for her first Universal Credit Payment. Skipping meals herself so she can feed her daughter. She’s not alone. And not everyone in Rosie’s situation would be able to rely on a kind neighbour to invite them round for tea.

For Rosie, the deal is broken.

The deal is broken for the people who are in work, but still face poverty. Two parents working full-time on the so-called National Living Wage will struggle to provide their children with even a basic lifestyle. This isn’t about taking the kids to Euro Disney, this is about putting food on the table, buying shoes and school uniforms, keeping the heating on in the winter.

The deal is broken because having a place to call your own is so much harder. A whole generation of working adults can’t afford to buy their own home. And government after government has failed to replenish the stock of social housing, leaving more and more young people at the mercy of private landlords.

The deal is broken because the healthcare you receive depends on where you live. In Stoke-on-Trent a mental health patient in need of talking therapy has a five-day wait between referral and treatment. Whereas 60 miles away in Leicester the same patient has to wait for nearly five months. 

The social contract means nothing to so many people. No matter how hard they try, how hard they work, their lives are not getting better. 

And they look around and see the wealthy and the privileged enjoying far more than their fair share. Employees who would have to work for nearly two centuries to earn what their chief executive takes home in a year. Bosses who take advantage of cheap labour but skimp on job security and training. Businesses who profit from operating in our society, but neglect the communities around them.

Ten years on from the financial crisis, people are still waiting for change in how corporations behave, but they couldn’t wait to get back to business as usual. 

So many in Britain have been left behind. They deserve better. We must demand better for those who are struggling. For those working hard every day. For our grandparents. For our children.

And we need to be honest about why we are where we are.

The current system works well for those who already have wealth and power, because they know how to work the system.

A booming economy masked the inequalities and injustices. When pay packets and living standards were rising year on year, it was less obvious how defunct the underlying economic model was for so many.

Then the financial crash hit our economy like a sledgehammer.  And both the Labour and coalition governments missed the chance for radical change.  A decade of stagnant wages has eroded a sense of hope.

I was a minister in the coalition government. I'm proud of what we achieved - but I'm not naive or blinkered about it. 

I'm proud that we fought the Tories in budget after budget to raise the personal allowance, and take the lowest paid out of income tax completely.

I'm proud that we helped the poorest children by investing more in their education, that we made mental healthcare a priority, that we backed green technologies on a scale that had never been seen before.

I'm incredibly proud of introducing shared parental leave - and I can't tell you how amazing it feels when people tell me about the difference it has made to them and their families.

I wouldn’t be able to do my job if it wasn’t for Duncan sharing the care. I’d thank him now, but I doubt he’s watching this instead of CBeebies.

And, conference, I burst with pride when I think about how we as Liberal Democrats made it possible for same-sex couples to get married. Because love is LOVE. 

But negotiating with the Conservatives meant compromise. And some of those compromises sucked. 

We should have done more...

More to stop Theresa May's hostile environment.

More to block Andrew Lansley’s disruptive NHS reforms.

More to prevent Iain Duncan Smith's punishing. bedroom. tax. 

We were right to cut the deficit, but those who were already struggling paid too high a price.

Let me be blunt…

If we are to claim the successes of our time in Government we need to own the failures of it too. We lost too many arguments. When they fought dirty, we were too nice. And austerity left behind people who liberals are in politics to protect.

In the aftermath of the financial crisis, we were so concerned with getting the show back on the road, we didn’t create space for radical thinking to rebuild a different type of economy.

Conference, so many people out there are struggling just to get by.

These people need us to fight for them, because we know the Conservatives won’t.

When Theresa May first stood on the steps of Downing Street, she promised to tackle society’s burning injustices. I was pleasantly surprised. I genuinely hoped that the days of the nasty party were numbered.

Two years later, and to borrow a phrase ‘nothing has changed’.

The Prime Minister is dancing to the tune of her most right-wing MPs, and they have all been far too distracted making a mess of Brexit to deal with anything else.

And Brexit is taking longer than David Davis ever told us it would. It is costing us more than Michael Gove ever told us it would. It will make us poorer than Boris Johnson ever told us it would. 

And Labour are backing the government every step of the way. Jeremy Corbyn is letting the Prime Minister off the hook.

My message to him is very clear.

So, Jeremy, grow a backbone, stand up for the millions of people who voted for you and help us stop Brexit.

The SNP are no better. They make all the right noises about wanting to stay in the European Union, but actions speak louder than words. We have asked them time and time again to back a People’s Vote on the deal. The reality is that Scottish nationalists have a one-track mind. While the country edges closer to the precipice, they’re manoeuvering to turn Brexit into the breakup of the UK.

Brexit is far from a done deal - it can be stopped.  Every single day, my fellow MPs and I are doing everything we can to secure an exit from Brexit. That’s our promise to you. But we need your help too.

We need every single one of you out there who wants a better future for our country and who wants to stop the government’s nightmare Brexit to join our fight.

To you all I say, our door is open, come join us.

Because the louder we shout, the harder it is to ignore us. The tougher we fight, the harder it is to beat us. The more united we are, the harder it is to stop us.

So get out there, knock on doors, speak to your neighbours, sign up your friends, write to your MP. And when you do, give them this message loud and clear: we want a People’s Vote and we want it now!

But Brexit is not the reason the social contract is broken. It is a symptom, not a cause. It will make all the consequences far worse, but the problems have been bubbling away for years. Stopping Brexit won’t magically solve these problems.

This Conservative government is so focused on trying to please Jacob Rees-Mogg and his cabal of right-wing Brexiteers, that they are blind to the much bigger force shaping our future.

We are living at an incredible moment in human history. We are in the midst of a technological age that is transforming the world around us at a pace that has never been seen before.

Some people call it the fourth industrial revolution. The internet has fundamentally changed almost every aspect of our lives – how we work, how we shop and how we relate to one another – and now advances in robotics and artificial intelligence are creating possibilities that just a few short years ago were the realm of science fiction.

But as we have seen with the age of the internet, every great liberating advance that is produced, throws up new problems and new risks too.

From fake news and internet trolls, to election tampering and the unchecked power of new media giants.

If we don’t manage it properly, this fourth industrial revolution could make the social contract weaker still. 

New technologies can help us make better decisions, or they could embody the worst of human thinking. Artificial intelligence learns from us. It can use data from previous diagnoses to read scans and free up doctors and nurses to spend more time with patients.

But artificial intelligence doesn’t look into the future to figure out what to do – it isn’t a crystal ball. It reflects the information we give it – it holds a mirror up to society. So we shouldn’t be surprised if the artificial intelligence systems we create spew out racist or sexist decisions. Such as the case in Florida where a system used for sentencing was twice as likely to wrongly label black defendants as future criminals. 

It would be a terrible irony if the Conservatives spend all this time and energy trying to take back control, only for us to end up being ruled by unaccountable algorithms. 

New technologies can create high-skilled, well-paid jobs, or turn us into minimum-wage drones. Search for a list of potential new jobs and the roles sound like something straight out a sci-fi novel. Cyber city analyst.  Man-machine team manager. Personal data broker.  And they’re just the ones George Osborne has taken while I’ve been talking. 

There are stories of faceless algorithms bossing around warehouse staff to meet next-day delivery targets. Workers who avoid drinking water so they don’t lose time going to the loo. A woman who gave birth in a toilet cubicle out of fear of losing her job.

Technology is supposed to make work better. It isn’t supposed to turn us into machines.

That’s why Vince and I have set up a Technology and Artificial Intelligence Commission to explore how we can make the most of the possibilities that this revolution brings, and ensure that all of us can benefit from them. And I am delighted that chairing this will be Dr Sue Black, who led the campaign to save Bletchley Park.

Because new technologies will have a more significant impact on workers than immigration will. And guess who will suffer the most? The single parent stacking shelves. The school leaver in a call centre. The fruit picker on the minimum-wage. Precisely the same people for whom the deal is broken. The same people and communities that we left behind.

Yet, immigration is all the Tories can bang on about. All they want is to close the borders and stop those pesky immigrants from coming over here, staffing our hospitals, teaching our children and taking care of our elderly. And worse still, they treat with contempt so many of those who have lived and worked here for decades, the very people we call neighbours, colleagues and friends

For the Tories, immigrant-bashing is much easier than finding the solutions to fix the social contract.

And actually I think we need to do much more than just ‘fix’ it.

Because if we want to make a success of the fourth industrial revolution, we need to fundamentally reconfigure our society.

We need to redefine work and what it means to be a member of the community. We need to reward more generously the unique human strengths that robots and algorithms can’t learn. Strengths such as care. Empathy. Love.

And we need to recognise that going to an office nine-to-five and taking care of elderly relatives are both valuable, and legitimate, contributions to our society. 

Because we might want a robot to hand us the pills we need to take, but we still want a warm hand to hold when we feel lonely.

Conference, the advances in robotics and artificial intelligence will help us to do things that previous generations of liberals committed their lives to.

Bringing knowledge, information…and power to the masses and not just the wealthy and the privileged.

Safer, cheaper and more efficient transport.

Advances in healthcare that can help us live longer and more comfortably.

New ways to bring people together, to reduce loneliness and help older people to live their twilight years with dignity.

And who knows what other great challenges these technologies could help us meet – from housing and poverty to climate change and energy security.

Yet no one in politics is really talking about the technological revolution that is right in front of us.

The Liberal Democrats have always been a party that is optimistic and forward-looking.

I want us to be the party that thinks passionately about the future – that offers people a hopeful vision of how the opportunities ahead of us can make our lives and our world a better place.

I want us to embrace the opportunities, tackle the challenges and lead the debate.

Because the Liberal Democrats are the party of the future.

Conference, the first two industrial revolutions—the ones that brought us the steam engine and electricity—created a Britain that no one at the time could have imagined.

And who was at the heart of those radical reforms? Liberals.

It was John Mundella who made parents send their children to school.

It was David Lloyd George who paved the way for the welfare state with free health insurance for workers and help for the jobless.

And it was Beveridge who masterminded our beloved NHS.

When society demanded better, it was liberals who delivered. The fourth industrial revolution gives us the same opportunity, and Conference we must deliver again.

What Britain needs now are ideas for the future, not borrowed from the past. Ideas that embrace change, instead of running from it. Ideas that are radical, not extreme. 

But the best that Tories and Labour can offer are solutions from the history books.

Or for John McDonnell, Mao’s little red book.

Or in Jacob Rees-Mogg’s case, a Charles Dickens novel.

Or with Boris Johnson, the Kama Sutra.

This is not good enough. Britain deserves better from its leaders than the dull and dreary vision on offer from the Conservatives and Labour. We demand better. 

Conference, we have what it takes to create that alternative vision.

We have done it before. Free school meals. Shared Parental Leave. Same. Sex. Marriage. Liberal policies for a Liberal Britain.

But I won’t pretend that I have all the answers or that only the people in this room are capable of finding the solutions. 

There are many others out there who share our values and no longer feel at home with the right-wing Tories or the Labour hard-left.

To them I say this. We are here for you. Our door is open. Come join our fight and share your ideas. We are ready to listen and we are ready to work with you.

The country is crying out for a brighter future, and the Liberal Democrats are the only party united enough to fight for it.

To fight for a future where no matter what cards you are dealt, you have the opportunity to get a better deal.

A future where business as usual is no longer good enough.

A future where everyone’s contribution is justly rewarded.

That is a future worth fighting for.

So, Conference, let’s demand better

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