Ed Davey's speech to Spring Conference

19 Mar 2023

I never knew my dad was a Liberal. He passed away when I was four – so we never got to talk politics.

To be honest, I’d always assumed he was a Tory because mum told me he used to play snooker at the local Conservative club.

So you can imagine what it meant to me when, years later, I came across this newspaper cutting my gran had kept – I guess from the late 1950s – about a garden party held by the Mansfield Divisional Liberal Association.

With a fancy dress parade and music from something called the “Codas beat group”. The cutting quotes my dad, “Mr John Davey” – as Chair of the Mansfield Liberals – saying that, unlike the Government of the day, “Liberals were not ‘pig-headed and pie-eyed theorists’, but people dedicated to public service. “Their dedication to service was untouched by selfish motives, and that was the mark of the Liberal.” Well, Dad, I couldn’t have put it better myself!

Conference, we’re all here today for the same reason that my Dad and his fellow Liberals were in that garden in Mansfield all those years ago: Because of our deep sense of public service. Because we love our country, we love our communities, and we want to serve them. And not a pig-headed pie-eyed theorist in sight!

So, it seems I might have, unknowingly, inherited my liberalism from my dad. But I do know I learnt a lot from my mum.

Having lost our dad to cancer, mum raised me and my two brothers on her own – even as she then became ill with cancer herself. When I was growing up, I didn’t realise how tough it must have been for mum. You don’t, do you? That’s the mark of a great parent.

I always knew she was a brilliant mum. But looking back I can now see just what a remarkable woman she was. Mum taught me all about compassion. Resilience. Sacrifice.

Loving, caring, and just keeping going. All the things that make us human. But she didn’t do it alone. Remarkable though she was, she couldn’t have done it alone.

Mum needed support from the government. And support from our community. I remember walking our dog with her, to the local post office, to collect her widow’s pension, every fortnight.

We weren’t especially hard up, but I’ve never forgotten how important those widow pension payments were for her. For us. As she adjusted to life as a single mum. Bringing up three young boys – all of us under ten, when dad died. And I’ll always remember some fabulous Indian curries that our neighbours – the Malhotras – used to bring round when mum was ill. And after she was gone. Just to make things that little bit easier for us.

Conference, the incredible power of strong communities and a strong social safety net, must never be taken for granted. And the values I learnt from my mum – and my experiences looking after her during her long, painful illness – they’ve shaped my life and driven my politics. Probably far more than any liberal DNA I got from my dad.

Compassion. Community. Fairness. Those are the values that make me a liberal. They’re why I’m a Liberal Democrat.

Why I’ve always fought for social justice. For strong communities and for a more caring society. And they’re the values that make me so proud of our party. And when I meet people acting out those values every day across our United Kingdom, it also makes me so proud to be British.

But Conference, those liberal, British values are also why I am so angry with this Conservative Government. Because they just don’t get it. I’m angry at the way these Conservatives have squandered the hard work and sacrifices of the British people.

As families and pensioners, businesses and workers have all spent the last year battling soaring energy bills, rising food prices and the long shadow of the pandemic –

The Conservatives have indulged in damaging party infighting and dangerous ideological experiments. Pig-headed and pie-eyed, my dad would have said! And I’m not just talking about Boris Johnson or Liz Truss or Rishi Sunak.

I’m talking about every single Conservative MP: at every step of the way putting their own narrow self-interest above our national interest.

The Conservatives: always so out-of-touch. Always taking people for granted. What a disgrace they are. Just at a time of crisis, when we did need “strong and stable” government, the Conservatives gave us chaos and division. When Britain needed integrity, they gave us Boris Johnson.

When our country needed wise leadership, they gave us Liz Truss. When people needed change, they gave us more of the same with Rishi Sunak. When we needed a gallant crew on the bridge to steer our great British ship through choppy waters,

We’ve instead had a bunch of mutinous pirates, only interested in who got to wear the captain’s hat. We needed Hornblower. They gave us Pugwash.

Friends, this is going to sound revolutionary, but bear with me… When the country faces a cost-of-living crisis, I believe the role of government should be to help people and help businesses, properly. Not make it worse!

But apparently these Conservative don’t see it that way.

Their cost-of-living crisis has plunged a million more people into poverty – many of them children. Tens of thousands of families have been made homeless. Many more families are relying on foodbanks – including some of the hardest working people in our country. As last week’s Budget confirmed, people are seeing their living standards plummet at a faster rate than ever before. And the Conservatives’ answer? Appoint a new Deputy Chairman to tell people to stop whining. To tell them they can get by on 30p a meal.

It’s not just that the Conservatives are out-of-touch – they are on another planet. Just look at the policy choices these Conservatives have made over the last year… while millions have struggled.

Tax properly the record profits of the oil and gas giants, as Liberal Democrats were the first to argue – profits made on the back of Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine? It’s a “no” from Rishi Sunak. But take money out of the pockets of struggling families with unfair income tax rises? An enthusiastic “yes” from the Conservatives.

Start to cut energy bills as gas prices fall, as we proposed, so families and pensioners don’t have to choose between heating and eating? No way, says Jeremy Hunt.

But recklessly add hundreds of pounds to people’s monthly mortgage bills, pushing many to the brink of losing their homes? With pleasure, as they all gleefully cheered Liz Truss’s budget.

The Conservatives aren’t serving the public – they are only serving themselves. Utterly devoid of the values that make our country so great. Compassion. Community. Fairness.

These are touchstones for the British people. They are fundamental to us as Liberal Democrats. But they are alien to today’s Conservative Party. Conference, I don’t believe there is much that is guaranteed in British politics any longer.

But there is one rule that I think is set in stone – And that’s how you know when a Government has reached the end of the road. Here it is. You can call it “Davey’s First Law of Politics” if you like.

And it’s this: You know a Government has reached the end of the road when it chooses to pick a fight with Match of the Day.

Honestly Conference. If they didn’t think it was all over before, they certainly do now.

Incidentally, this newspaper cutting that quotes my dad also quotes a “Mrs J Maizel” who opened that garden party all those years ago – with a warning that, under the then Government, “the National Health Service will soon grind to a halt”.

“Even if we have hospitals built,” she said, “without the changes that are needed, there will not be the nurses to staff them.”

Conference, she could have been speaking to us today! But I don’t think even Mrs Maizel could have predicted the sheer depths of the crisis into which the Conservatives have plunged our NHS today. Patients in every part of the country, waiting hours for an ambulance…

Weeks to see a GP… Months to start treatment for cancer. Seven million people on hospital waiting lists. And these are not just statistics – shocking though they are. Not just targets missed – appalling though that is.

In far too many cases, these delays are the difference between life and death. Between the mother being there to see her daughter get married, or not. Being able to hold her first grandson – or never getting to meet him. Between enjoying the retirement she’s worked and saved her whole life to earn – Or never even getting to start it. I know what it means to lose your parents to cancer, far too young. How devastating. How unfair. Of course I get that it’s not always possible to prevent it. But I also know that, for too many families right now, it could have been prevented.

Prevented, if we had a Government truly committed to public service values. And when you look to the future – Perhaps even worse than plunging our country into the twin crises with cost-of-living and healthcare – Is the Conservatives’ total lack of ambition to solve people’s problems. And their total lack of vision for the future. At every step of the way – on the economy, the cost-of-living or the NHS – Rishi Sunak has had to be dragged kicking and screaming just to do the bare minimum. 

His great “vision” for Britain, set out in his five-point plan at the beginning of the year, basically amounts to: “Try not to make things any worse.”

Take economic growth. Remember when governments used to talk about targeting three, four, five percent? Rishi Sunak’s target? Anything above zero. It’s like a mid-table football club with a new manager, targeting to avoid relegation, rather than a place in the Champions League. And Jeremy Hunt in his Budget on Wednesday, proudly boasting not that the economy is growing, but that it might just avoid a technical recession after all. Total defeatism from a government that’s run out of ideas and has nothing left to offer.

The way Conservative MPs talk nowadays, it’s like they know the truth: Their Government needs to be put out of its misery. So what of Labour? Labour’s ambitions are hardly much higher. Their only goal seems to be: “Not as bad as the Conservatives”. Talk about a low bar!

The bar is so low with Labour, you’d need a team of deep-sea divers just to find it! Conference, our country can do so much better than that. The British people deserve so much more than that. And Liberal Democrats, our ambition for our country is so much greater than that.

We understand that you can’t just keep applying one short-term sticking plaster on top of another –- while the wound deepens and festers underneath. We understand that – whether it’s energy bills, or social care, or the climate crisis, or even the political system itself – Tinkering around the edges simply isn’t good enough. For us, it’s about more than just changing the faces at the top of politics.

It’s about more than changing who sits in power. It’s about changing where power sits. It’s about changing the whole way British politics is done.

Liberal Democrats, we are the party of the deep political reform so many millions of our fellow citizens yearn for – And we must never rest till we have delivered that real reform. That real change. Our goal must be nothing less than to change the very nature of British politics itself.

For a hundred years, Liberals and Liberal Democrats have fought for fair votes. To give everyone an equal voice in our democracy. To hold all Members of Parliament, properly to account. And while the other parties still cling to the discredited First Past the Post electoral system, Our zeal for Proportional Representation remains undimmed today. Conference, we will make it happen. We will make fair votes a reality.

But, friends, we also know that reforming our politics – to put more power in people’s hands – goes far beyond changing the way we vote. It means shifting more power out of the centre in Whitehall, so local decisions are made by and for the people and communities they affect. That commitment to community politics is one of the foundation stones of our party. It sets us as Liberal Democrats apart from the other parties.

We are passionate about local democracy. Passionate about the good Liberal Democrat councils can do for their communities – as demonstrated so brilliantly here in York. By councillors like Keith Aspden, who has led our party here in York for a decade. And we are passionate about giving people a say, a voice and real power outside elections and outside the town hall.

Empowering people to be part of the decisions for their community is an incredibly potent force for improving people’s lives – and for engaging those who feel left out. Conference, let’s remember why this matters. Improving our democracy is an important end in itself, but it’s also how you build a better country. Make votes count. Give communities real power. Just imagine how things will get better.

For here’s the secret. People want good schools. Good hospitals. Affordable housing and safe communities. People want a clean, healthy natural environment. They want an end to the Conservatives letting water companies get away with pumping filthy sewage straight into our rivers. The biggest environmental crime in our country today. And a crime that will cost the Conservatives dozens of seats if they don't act. Our historic task is to create a new politics, where government has to respond to all of the people. Not just a few swing-voters in a handful of marginal seats. Or a tiny cabal of big-money donors. With a better electoral system. With more power in the hands of individuals and communities, Politicians and parties will have to be more focused on the things that really matter to people. And we’ll have better public services and a fairer society as a result.

And Conference, it’s not just this ambitious destination and reforming vision that makes us so different.  It’s our starting point too. The values we start from. Our principles. Our philosophy.

We start from a fundamental belief in the intrinsic value of every human being. We are deeply optimistic about people. We see beauty in each individual. And we believe that if you free people – if you empower them, if you give them more choices in life – Then you unleash the best in people – and they create the better, fairer society we all want. You see, unlike Labour, we don’t think the state always knows best what people need. And unlike the Conservatives, we understand that an active state is essential to empower people and enlarge individual freedom. And we don’t sneer at the choices people make about their lives, just because they are different to the ones we might make about our own.

We believe that the problems in our country – and around the world – come not from individuals having too much control over their lives, but too little. That’s why the core of our mission as liberals is to put more power in people’s hands – And making society fairer so everyone has the opportunity to put their power into practice.

That’s what we’re about: Empowering people. And holding the already powerful to account.

From the oil and gas giants who pollute our planet to the water companies who pollute our rivers. From out-of-control Prime Ministers who break the law, to out-of-touch MPs who take their constituents for granted. People thirst for a politics that can stand up to all this. That can stop the outrageous abuse of political and economic power.

Conference, our reforming mission is to do just that. And liberals believe that basic rights and human dignity are not weapons to be brandished in some manufactured culture war, But the birthright of every individual. To be respected and to be cherished.

That is where we always start from as Liberal Democrats. With people – and their freedoms. It’s what sets us apart from the other parties. And it’s what gives us a unique and vital role in British politics today. Conference, a vital and patriotic role, because so much of Britain’s great history has been a tale of our liberal values, in practice. Progress hasn’t always been smooth, and certainly hasn’t been as rapid as we’d like… But liberals have shaped so much of what we love about our United Kingdom today.

It was Victorian Liberals who overturned centuries of protectionism and ushered in a new era of free trade and prosperity. It was a Liberal government that introduced health insurance, unemployment insurance, the state pension, and free school meals for children – more than one hundred years ago. And – even though liberals have rarely been in government since then – we have nevertheless driven so many of the progressive reforms of the last century. Expanding the welfare state and creating the National Health Service.

Legalising abortion, decriminalising homosexuality and introducing same-sex marriage. Investing in renewable power and securing more aid for the world’s most vulnerable people. Fighting and winning the case for more investment in our children’s education. Liberal values in practice. Liberal policies in place. Thanks to us.

But as we all know, Conference, the changes we have fought for have never come easily. How many times has our party paid a heavy price, for standing up for what we know to be right? We all bear the scars of the battle for a more liberal Britain. We have marched, many times, towards the sound of gunfire, and the noise still rings in our ears. And tragically, in recent years we have seen too much liberal progress unpicked, by a Conservative Party determined to take our country backwards. But we march on, undeterred.

Just as it didn’t deter the great liberal heroes of the past, who fought bravely, who overcame the odds, and changed our country for the better. We stand on the shoulders of those liberals in Britain who helped to write the best chapters of our island story so far. Our job today is to write the next chapter for Britain. To make our country’s future as bright as we know it can be. To make our fair deal for people, a reality for all. To win the battle for liberal Britain. Conference, I joined this party. I campaign for this party. I serve this party as leader – because I believe only we can do it. Because our fair deal can only be delivered by a party that listens to people’s dreams and desires, and works with people to make dreams a reality.

A party that doesn’t simply tell people what’s good for them. Our fair deal can only be delivered by a party open to new ideas. Prepared to seek out new solutions to the challenges of the future, rather than reaching back for the tired old answers of the past.

As another liberal once said in another country, at another time of great change and challenge: “The cruelties and the obstacles of this swiftly changing planet will not yield to obsolete dogmas and outworn slogans.

“It cannot be moved by those who cling to a present which is already dying, who prefer the illusion of security to the excitement and danger which comes with even the most peaceful progress.”

No – it can only be moved by us: liberals who believe the future can be better than the past. Who embrace the excitement and danger of building that future. And who have the courage and the vision to make it happen. And that’s what liberals have always been all about.

Listening to people, thinking big about the problems they face, and making the changes they need – even in the most challenging times. When Britain faced the existential threat of German invasion in the forties, the Liberal William Beveridge looked beyond the Second World War to envisage a universal healthcare system, free at the point of use.

Open to everyone, regardless of wealth. The NHS. A Liberal invention and one of things that makes us so proud to be British. We cherish the NHS. We all have loved ones who owe their lives to it. And we will never forgive the Conservatives for what they have done to it. Leaving our brilliant nurses overstretched, underpaid and exhausted. Leaving hospitals to crumble. Leaving patients to suffer. In the twenty-five years since I was first elected to Parliament, I have never seen the NHS in a worse state than it is today. Conference, we have to save our NHS from this Conservative vandalism.

And we know – as we have said many times over many years – that we cannot save and repair the NHS without fixing social care. So even as we battle through this current crisis, let us do as liberals have always done and set our sights on a better future – not just for the NHS, but for social care too. Because care remains the unfinished business of Beveridge’s reforms. And as we think about our historic mission to reform care, and save the NHS, let us never forget the millions of family carers who do the vast bulk of our nation’s caring.  So as we reform social care, let us at the same time reform how we support our nation’s precious family carers. 

The mother and fathers. The sons and daughters. The grandparents and grandchildren. The kinship carers. The people who care because they love. As I said in my first speech as Leader, I want us to be the party of carers. The voice of carers. So we can save the NHS. My own caring journey has shown me how far we still have to go. My mum was an only child, so when her mum, my grandmother, became frail in her later years, it fell largely to me and my brother to organise her care. That experience, looking after my dearest Nanna, certainly taught me how challenging getting old can be. How failing eyesight, brittle bones and loneliness can take such a big toll.

How a lifetime’s savings and work can so quickly be wiped away by extortionate care bills. How much of a battle it can be to make sure our loved ones spend their twilight years with dignity and in comfort. It shouldn’t be so hard. And today, as Emily and I care for our wonderful son John – Whose neurological condition means he can’t talk or walk by himself, Who lights up our world, but needs 24/7 care, and probably will do long after we are gone – As we care for John, and as I meet other carers all around the country, I see how important it is that we get care right. But, regrettably, how undervalued care and carers still are by the people in power. It shouldn’t be so hard. So I’m proud that our party has always prioritised care. Stitching together a long-term, cross-party solution to fund care for the elderly a decade ago – Only to see it ripped up by the Conservatives when they were back in government alone.

Friends. We are seeing the consequences of the Tories’ treachery on care today: The appalling and avoidable crises in both social care and the NHS. So let us take up the challenge of finishing Beveridge’s work. Armed with the plan we adopted this morning, to build a system of social care that really works –Based on the same principles as the NHS  So that everyone can get the care they need, when they need it. And carers can get the support, when they need it too. And let’s bring that same bold, visionary approach to our economy as well.

Yes, we need immediate solutions to the cost-of-living crisis engulfing so many families and pensioners – Like using a proper windfall tax to cut energy bills – But we need far more than that too. The Government’s aim cannot just be mere economic survival. Stopping the recession may be the limits of Rishi Sunak’s ambition, but it is nowhere near enough. The British people deserve and need better. A strong and sustainable economy, with genuine prosperity and opportunity for all.

Where businesses are able to create good jobs in all parts of the United Kingdom, and where hard work and aspiration are properly rewarded. And, Liberal Democrats, we know what that means: Backing small businesses – the lifeblood of our economy and the heart of thriving local communities.

Prioritising people. With education and training. And yes, with quality childcare – but also making it easier for all family carers to juggle work and care, something the Chancellor totally ignored. Investing in new technology and harnessing the benefits of artificial intelligence. And above all, investing in a green economic recovery to create hundreds of thousands of clean, secure, well-paid new jobs – across the UK’s nations and regions.

By the way, did you hear Jeremy Hunt on Wednesday, claiming it was the Conservatives who were responsible for Britain’s growth in renewable power? The sheer brass neck of it, when that lot tried to stop us every step of the way! Never forget, Conference, that it was the Liberal Democrats with our foot on the accelerator of solar power. The Liberal Democrats who made Britain the world leader in offshore wind. And Liberal Democrats who led our renewables revolution while the Tories tried to stop us.

And there’s another historic, longstanding difference between the Liberal Democrat economic vision – and those of others. More relevant today than ever. I call it the elephant in the room of British politics. An elephant we always point to, even though other parties daren’t even whisper its name.

So let me shout it, yet again: if you want to boost our economy, you have to repair our broken relationship with Europe. Conference, you don’t need me to tell you what a disaster the Conservatives’ botched deal with Europe has been for our country. You see it every day in your communities: The businesses strangled by red tape. The farmers, fishers and factories, unable to sell to their customers on the continent. The empty shelves in local supermarkets. It’s why we campaigned against it. Why, when Boris Johnson brought his terrible deal to Parliament, when even Labour supported it, Liberal Democrats stood alone and voted against it.

And why now Liberal Democrats are the only ones with a real plan to fix Britain’s trade. To tear down the Conservatives’ trade barriers, rip up their red tape, and rebuild the ties of trust and friendship with our European neighbours. Because as liberals we are proud internationalists. Who understand that our country thrives most when it is open and outward-looking. When it stands tall in the world, instead of shrinking back from it. We understand that no nation – even one as resourceful and resilient as our great United Kingdom – no nation can afford to cut itself off. And we know that our country can be an incredible force for good when it plays an active role on the world stage –

Guided by our fundamental British values of equality, democracy, human rights and the rule of law. It’s why our country has stood united in solidarity with the brave Ukrainian people in their struggle against Putin’s illegal invasion. I am so proud that throughout the last year we have been Ukraine’s strongest ally – And we must continue to stand with them, until Putin’s aggression is repelled for good.

Like the Covid pandemic before it, the war in Ukraine shows the folly of thinking that events outside of Britain’s borders simply aren’t our concern. Their enormous impacts on the everyday lives of the British people show what Liberal Democrats have always known: Foreign policy is not secondary to economic and social policy. Good, ethical foreign policy is good economic and social policy. That’s why we stand for human rights everywhere in the world – from Xinjiang to Tehran.

Why we work for peace everywhere in the world – from Kyiv to Kinshasa. Why we seek to end poverty and hunger everywhere in the world – from Delhi to Darfur. Why we oppose Suella Braverman’s appalling anti-refugee bill – nothing more than a criminal traffickers’ charter. And Conference, it’s why we Liberal Democrats increased the UK’s overseas aid to 0.7 percent of national income, and fought to enshrine that global promise into law. It was our party that fought for that law. Our party that introduced it. And our party that has always stood by it. Conference, that makes me so proud.

Our zero-point-seven commitment survived three Conservative Chancellors. But then along came Rishi Sunak. Ripping up that proud commitment for the UK to lead the world on aid for the poorest. How cruel. How counterproductive. How unpatriotic. So Liberal Democrats, we will restore it. We are the only party committed to restoring it. We will put the UK back where it belongs: Leading the fight against poverty, hunger and disease – everywhere in the world. These fights are never easy and rarely popular. But we must continue to fight them. Because if we don’t, who will? Conference, this is who we are.

We are the internationalists who take on the nationalists in England, Scotland and Wales. We are the champions of universal human rights, against those who seek to tear them up. We are the environmentalists who stand against those who don’t understand the value of our wonderful natural environment. Against those who refuse to face up to the existential threat of climate change. We are the people who support diversity as one of our country’s greatest strengths – and oppose those who stoke fear and division. We are the reformers – challenging the concentration of power in anyone’s hands. Reformers who will always seek to hand more power to people, and to hold the already powerful to account.

We are the party of hope over fear.

And – as Liberal Democrats have always been – we are the big thinkers with the vision to see past current crises and paint the future we want to build. So as we go out, confidently, into the communities we love – To campaign for our fantastic Liberal Democrat candidates, To elect strong local champions and fight for a fair deal – Let us remember why we are in this fight to begin with. As my dad said all those years ago, we are in this fight because of our dedication to public service. Because we love our country and want to transform it for the better.

To build a liberal Britain, and spread real opportunity to every city, town and village across our great United Kingdom. To deliver the fair deal that the British people deserve. Liberal Democrats, that is our mission. That is our calling. That is our fight. It’s a fight we can win. It’s a fight we must win. So let’s get out there, and win it.

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