Ming Campbell addressed the Liberal Democrats’ Taking Power consultation at the Liberal Democrat Conference in Brighton as follows:[audio:http://www.mingcampbell.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2006/09/MingAtConference-TakingPower.mp3]
During the summer Elspeth and I like to spend as much time as we can at the Edinburgh Festival and one of the remarkable features now of the Edinburgh Festival is the way in which the book festival has become so significant, and it’s true all round the country. Book festivals have become enormously important. And when Roy Hattersley and Tony Benn and Denis Healey and people come to speak the tickets for these events are sold out within a matter of minutes of booking opening. And there is a sense in which book festivals have become a substitute if you like for the political meetings. If we’d taken a room in the Assembly Rooms in Edinburgh in George Street and said we had all these politicians to speak we’d have got thirty people. Instead they talk to audiences of a thousand with others clambering outside.
But the person whose presence struck me more than any other as well as that was Helena Kennedy. Now some of you will know Helena Kennedy as the tame Labour Peer that Tony Blair put in to the House of Lords who’s turned in to a tigress, who has defended the right to trial by jury, who has defended the systematic authoritarianism of this Government, and who was the chair of the Power Inquiry. And at half past ten on a wet Monday morning in Edinburgh it was standing room only for Helena Kennedy to come and talk about the Power Inquiry.
Now that I think reflects precisely and exactly what Paul Tyler’s been talking about, about the fact that there is this sense of frustration and discontent among the public about politics, or rather more correctly about politicians and political institutions but not about politics. People are interested in politics, people are interested in whether they have any influence any longer on Government conducted on an increasingly presidential basis. And so our experience at the Edinburgh Book Festival simply goes to confirm the importance of the subject we’re talking about.
Now all of us here are political activists and we’ve all become increasingly aware of this disenchantment which so many members of the public feel. And how many of us could honestly say we haven’t from time to time been discouraged on that famous wet Tuesday night in Dudley that Kenneth Clarke reminded everyone of a few years ago when you knock on a door and someone comes and says, oh you’re all the same, you’re only in it for what you get? And you think, my feet are soaking, I haven’t had anything to eat, I could do with a drink, and this person says I’m in it for what I can get, well, we’re not getting very much are we? And that apathy is often discouraging.
And of course the other sign of that disengagement is the drop in election turn out, down what to sixty two, or the election before the last down to fifty nine per cent, sixty per cent the last time. Sixty per cent of adults voted, sixty three or sixty four per cent, I think I’m right, of adults in this country are on the internet. More people on the internet than actually bothered to vote in the last general election. Doesn’t that tell us something?
And worse of course is this generation of young people who have not voted, don’t feel compelled to vote and may never acquire the habit of voting, and yet, who were the people on the march against the war in Iraq? Who were the people who wanted to raise money for the victims of the Tsunami? Who are the people who are most desperately concerned about the environment? It was these same young people, keenly political, but with no confidence in political institutions and politics.
Now, those millions who marched against Iraq and those who’ve been part of the Make Poverty History campaign, I don’t know about other colleagues but in my constituency we’ve got a good ecumenical, all the churches, I went to talk to them the other day about Trident, they call themselves the Justice and Peace Group. But they got up at three o’clock in the morning when the G8, not this last one, the one before because it was in Gleneagles on the doorstep they didn’t have to get up at three o’clock in the morning, but when it was in Birmingham they got up at three o’clock in the morning, they went in a bus with their sandwiches and their thermos flasks and they went down to Birmingham and they stood outside and they clasped hands with that wonderful, wonderful circle round the G8 to say, come on it’s time you did something about the poorest people in the world. And these same people went to Gleneagles as well.
So there is a real sense still of people wanting to be engaged. Now people are not quite so deferential towards politicians as they have previously been and that is a very good thing too. But that gulf which I’ve identified is dangerous because if you have a political system that goes in one direction and if you have the public and the people going in another then the very cohesion of society is at risk.
And of course a lot of this was the prerogative of the chattering classes, the Observer readers, those who buy the Independent and think the front pages of the Independent are wonderful, people like me and you. But, well the front page of the Independent’s not always wonderful I have to say, and I’m not always entirely happy with the editorial. But then the Power Commission came along and what they decided to do was they decided not just to be independent in the sense of plucking a series of the great and the good, they ensured that the commissioners, the members, were representative of the country as a whole, and their task was to go away, go round the country, under Helena Kennedy’s leadership, and come back with proposals. And if you read the Power Commission it reads like a Liberal Democrat manifesto. But the advantage it has is this; it comes with independence. Because when you and I talk about proportional representation people always say ah we’re only interested in that because it would increase the number of Members of Parliament in the House of Commons. But they came to this with total independence.
And from the moment I read that report I was absolutely determined that we as a party would not pass up the opportunity which is offered. First because we have always argued the case for the political process being more inclusive, more responsive and more interactive. What is community politics about if it’s not about making politics more responsive and more inclusive?
I’ve just been, there’s a race that they have here, I’ve just, for, for women, to raise money for the women’s refuge here, just along on the, on, on the esplanade, and that’s the kind of thing which to a very large extent was spawned by our notion of community politics. This is a voluntary organisation, the refuge here, it has to raise its own money, and there they were, what five, six hundred women, all running for their health and a bit of enjoyment but also in the name of this project. And that’s the kind of practical inclusiveness which we have always counted on.
And of course the second reason is the agenda of the Power Commission so followed our own thinking that we would be very foolish politically to let other parties monopolise what has been our territory. People say to me often, Andrew Marr said it to me this morning, or rather last night because we recorded last night, are you worried about David Cameron coming on to your ground? Not a bit of it. I want him on my ground. Why? ‘Cause it’s our ground, we know it, we understand it, we staked it out. And so when people talk about constitutional change and about reconnecting the public then this is something we know about and we must not under any circumstances cede any part of that ground to any party, however well intentioned it may be.
One issue though which the commission raised which is absolutely fundamental is this; we mustn’t cherry pick. Because it comes as a whole, it comes as a package, it has checks and balances contained within it. You start pulling pieces out then you destroy the integrity of the whole proposal.
And third, this commission offers us the chance to develop new ways of communicating with the citizens using Twenty First Century electronic media. Now as some of you will know I’m not the most qualified techie. Information (indistinct) is, technology is not my strongest suit but I’m surrounded by some very bright and clever people who know a great deal about it. But although I may not understand it I sure as hell understand the need to use it, because that statistic I gave you a moment or two ago about those adults who are on the internet tells us just how important this mechanism for communication is now and is going to be.
So that’s why, as Paul’s already said, in May I announced we were going to have a virtual conference, and it’s been successfully developed by Paul and Richard Allan and Martin Tod and Alex Davies, and it’s there, it’s taking place, we launched it the other day in the House of Commons. And all of them are here today and I think there’s an information pack, there’s information which enables you to be part of it, but also enables you to tell other people how to be part of it. And already hundreds of people, most of them new to any sort of political discussion, are taking part in this alternative conference. The closing date’s the 6th of October, we want many more people to join, and in particular we want many more young people to join as well.
Now David Steel famously said, go back to your constituencies and prepare for Government. My message is rather more prosaic. Go back to your constituencies and involve everyone in your constituency who wasn’t able to come to Brighton. But some actually might think that that more prosaic message may in the end have greater consequences.
This is a conference, this virtual conference, we can all attend without taking a week off work, without registration fees, without travel expenses, without inconveniencing the rest of the family. And it’s an opportunity for your local members to have their say in our conference, our internet conference, on how Britain should be run. It’s a chance to allow every voice to be heard and that is something that I wholeheartedly welcome and for which I seek your endorsement.