25 February 2011
CONFERENCE SPEECH, CARDIFF, 25 FEBRUARY 2011
Thank you for that introduction, and thank you to Cardiff Green Party for the wonderfully warm welcome we've all received, and for putting together such an excellent conference.
Of course, there's no better time for our party's Spring Conference to be here in Wales.
A year ago, when we gathered together in Hove, I said I would throw caution to the winds, stick my neck out and predict victory in the General Election - our first seat in Parliament.
And if anyone here took out a bet based on my advice, I hope they plan to share their winnings!
Today I want to do the same. To predict that 2011 will also see a historic first: Greens elected to the Welsh Assembly.
I've seen first-hand the commitment and self-belief of the team here in Wales.
And I believe that every one of our candidates has the ability and the integrity to provide that blend of fearless opposition and positive alternatives that we as Greens offer.
Mae yr amser wedi dod - pob lwc: The time has come - Good Luck.
I know you'll do us proud. And when - not if, but when - there are Greens in the Assembly, then the battle really begins.
In these difficult times, with a government hell-bent on cutting public services, our communities need politicians who will put them first - not the bankers, not the party donors, but the people they are supposed to serve.
Greens will do that.
We don't go into politics because we want to climb the greasy pole to the Cabinet, ending up with a seat in the House of Lords, or directorships of merchant banks.
We get involved because we want to put something back into our local communities.
We don't depend on big business or the unions to fund our work.
So we have the independence to do what's right.
And when the decisions are hard, as they are now, that matters more than ever. Principled . Independent. On your side.
That's what people want from politicians. That's what we can offer in the May elections.
This week, I've been visiting just some of our local election target seats around the country. And in the last few days I've been to Sheffield, York, Leeds, Huddersfield, Lancaster, Cambridge, Totnes and Bristol - and I can report that, miraculously, the trains ran on time throughout!
And I want to tell you that what I saw on those visits was so inspiring.
Green councillors making a real difference to their communities - rolling out home insulation schemes, introducing Green Travel Plans, promoting local businesses and creating more jobs - and crucially, doing all they can to defend the poorest and most vulnerable from the savagery of this government's cuts.
Because our policies have never been more urgently needed.
We were the Party who went into the last election with a costed plan to tackle the deficit without decimating public services and destroying jobs.
In contrast, Labour, Lib Dems and Tories all wanted to make big cuts in public services. Like mediaeval physicians, they seem to think that the more blood they shed, the better the country will feel. Well, I've got news for them: we've moved on a bit since the days of leeches and blood-letting.
And that's why our message is that
• Cuts that hurt the poorest hardest are morally wrong
• That it is unacceptable that banks like Barclays make over £11 bn profit, but pay only 1% tax
• These cuts are not inevitable - they are driven by ideology, not economic necessity, and as Greens, we will fight them every step of the way.
I've had people come to my surgeries in Brighton who are terrified that they are going to be made homeless because of cuts to housing benefit. People concerned about cuts even to the mobility element of the Disability Living Allowance - how dare they take away such a lifeline from people in need. Cuts to legal aid, so people can't stand up and fight for justice.
And that's why when this Tory-led government has the gall to call these cuts "fair", they rightly lose any shred of credibility they might ever have had.
But these cuts are not only socially devastating. They are economically illiterate.
The way to tackle the deficit is not to throw out of work half a million public sector workers, with a knock-on effect of a similar number in the private sector.
The way to tackle the deficit is to create jobs, to keep people's taxes coming into the Revenue, to keep them in work.
And one of the fastest job creation schemes imaginable would be our programme for a Green New Deal - a massive investment in renewables and energy efficiency, better home insulation for hundreds of thousands of households, tackling fuel poverty, and helping to create a million new jobs.
And if the government is still worrying about how to pay for it, let's point them in a few directions:
• A Robin Hood Tax on international financial transactions would generate £20bn a year even if it was only introduced in the UK alone
• Cracking down on the tax evasion and tax avoidance of the wealthiest could raise £10bn in the first year - but this government is sacking workers at HMRC
• Scrapping Trident replacement could save us £100 bn over 30 years
• And a further windfall tax on bankers bonuses and bank profits would ensure that those who created this crisis pay for it
This is the kind of thinking we offer in local government too.
Unlike Labour, we never wanted these cuts.
But we also know that waste does go on in some Councils. Every penny saved from mal-administration, or needlessly wasting money by ripping out cycle lanes, as the Tories plan to do in Brighton and Hove, is money that could keep libraries open, or fund the vital Connexions service, or pay for proper fire brigade cover.
Greens genuinely believe in power being in the hands of local communities. Parishes and wards, estates, even individual streets. It's right in principle and it's more efficient too.
Now there are probably people in this hall today who will be elected to their local council for the first time in May. Who may even be the only Green councillor.
At times, representing your community will feel like a lonely battle. Many of us have had that experience at local level.
Believe me, I've also felt it on many occasions at Westminster, standing in the House of Commons, one Green surrounded by 649 MPs from other parties. It can be hard. Frustrating. But never forget that one voice can make all the difference.
And I'm confident that more Green councillors will be those voices, putting social and environmental justice at the heart of their communities.
It's traditional in conference speeches to look back at the last six months.
But events are changing so rapidly on the ground in the Middle East, that even the last six days have offered extraordinary moments both of tremendous hope, and of near-despair. We have seen people in their hundreds of thousands risk their lives for democracy and the rule of law.
And I'm sure all of us have felt the same awe in the face of their courage. The courage of the protesters in Tarhir Square, facing the stones, clubs and bullets of the pro-Mubharak thugs. And the extraordinary courage of so many ordinary people in Libya, armed only in their belief in democracy and human rights.
Contrast that to the actions of our own Prime Minister, David Cameron. I have to confess that when I first saw him on TV in Tahrir Square earlier this week, I genuinely thought for a moment that he was really there to express solidarity with the pro-democracy movement in Egypt. And I thought great, good on him.
And then the horrifying reality: he was there, in the Middle East, at a time of such violence and chaos, with a delegation of arms traders, to sell more arms.
More guns, more tanks, more armoured vehicles, stun grenades, tear gas, riot-control equipment.
I know that ethical foreign policy has gone out of fashion, but frankly the blatant opportunism of this visit is morally obscene. But perhaps we shouldn't be surprised.
After all, this is a government whose defence equipment minister, Peter Luff, unequivocally stated back in June, and I quote:
"There will be a very, very, very heavy ministerial commitment to arms sales. There is a sense that in the past we were rather embarrassed about exporting defence products. There is no such embarrassment in this government."
But as we Greens know, there certainly should be.
And that's why it's been longstanding Green Party policy to call for an immediate and properly enforced ban on selling arms to those who torture, lock up political opponents, and use violence against peaceful protestors. And that's why a UN asset freeze and total arms embargo should be just the first step, along with a commitment to investigate and punish all crimes under international law, with referral to the International Criminal Court as necessary.
And here at home, in a very different context of course, we've seen the courage of communities up and down the country as they try to fight the government's savage cuts. Not only savage because of their scale, but also because of the apparent satisfaction with which the coalition government is imposing them.
Voluntary groups starved of support, dedicated public service workers sacked, and vital services closed.
But people are mobilising to resist these cuts.Individuals, local communities, charities and unions, all working to point out the folly of what is being done to our economy and to our society.
Groups coming together not only to save their own library, their own wood, their own hospital from the threat of privatisation or closure, but coming together to protect all the libraries, all the woods, and all the hospitals.
And it is our role to give voice to this movement in the political sphere. Our role - because the traditional parties have shown themselves fundamentally out of tune with the people they claim to represent.
Take the Liberal Democrats.
Only a short year ago, they claimed to represent those millions who knew that education is a public benefit and should not be given only to those prepared to shoulder enormous debts.
They pledged not to increase tuition fees.
A few short months later, and such pledges are in tatters.
Now the Libdems are being punished. And rightly so.
Nick Clegg and his colleagues have one ray of hope that they are clinging to as they slide below 10% in the polls.
They believe that they will be proved right on the cuts. That the economy will turn around, that people will feel good and forget, and that they will be re-elected in four years time, all sins forgiven.
They couldn't be more wrong.
They still can't understand why their voters have deserted them.
It's not just because of the state of the economy.
It's not even on the question of how best to fund higher education in the UK.
It's about trust.
Millions of people trusted the Liberal Democrats.
They voted for them in the belief that they stood for decency, for public services, and for constitutional reform.
And the Liberal Democrats have betrayed that trust all down the line. That's why the voters have deserted them.
And that's why it doesn't matter what happens to the economy.
The Liberal Democrats will never be trusted in that way again. Nor do they deserve to be.
And what of Labour?
On health, education, climate change and welfare Labour candidates were happy to sign up to all kinds of positive statements during the election campaign, even when their party had done nothing in these areas during the 13 years they'd been in power, and where the Labour Party manifesto was saying something completely different.
So what kind of opposition to this Tory-led government can they offer now?
The truth is that Labour is fatally compromised by having introduced many of the very policies the coalition is now pursuing to their logical conclusion:
• The trebling of tuition fees will leave students with an enormous debt burden, but who first introduced tuition fees? Labour
• Selling off the Royal Mail is likely to lead to the closure of hundreds more of our local post offices, but who first proposed it? Labour
• The government's health reforms are likely to lead to the privatisation of the NHS, but who first introduced the market into the health service? Labour.
To hear Ed Miliband speak about healthcare, you'd think he'd need a trip to the doctors himself.
For there was never a clearer case of amnesia.
It was his party, the Labour Party, and his colleagues in cabinet, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, who introduced the private sector into the NHS.
They were even warned that, once that door was open, they would find the private healthcare providers hard to control.
And so it has come to pass.
That's why we need principled opposition more than ever. You can't mobilise popular opposition if you yourself are rightly not to be trusted.
That's why so much of the responsibility of opposition to the current government has fallen to us - and we will rise to that challenge.
Opposition must also be free to think radically.
Take the growing role of private firms in providing public services. Yes, we want to limit their role. But we also to make sure that, where private firms are used, they operate under just the same controls and safeguards as for the public sector.
The starting-point for that is that we must be entitled to know what they are up to. Their policies and operating methods. Whether they are sticking to the rules on discrimination or procurement.
Already, there are institutions that we depend on every bit as much as we do on some of our public sector services.
Banks. Telecom firms. Water companies. Train and bus companies.
We need proper scrutiny of them as well. But at the moment, they can hide behind the excuse of commercial confidentiality.
And with the government's plans to put out to tender almost every single public service, and this is about to get even worse.
Forget cosy words about localism or choice. However much local people like local services that work well, they will have no choice in the matter. Private companies will be able to challenge any service they would like to run and bid to take it over. And there will be nothing that local people, or their elected representatives, can do about it.
Greens will oppose those plans.
And we will also try to hold private companies to greater account.
That's why I am proposing that the current Freedom of Information Act be amended to extend its coverage to the private sector.
If companies want to take on the role of public services, it is only right that they should take on the responsibilities that go with it. And that includes being open about their activities.
We can avoid businesses being swamped with requests by using the Office of the Information Commissioner to lay down the classes of information that private companies must reveal - particularly those providing services to the public.
The effect of this change would be to help provide the accountability we so desperately need as more and more services move out of the public realm.
Imagine if we'd had FOI covering the banks in the run-up to the financial crash.
Then, it wouldn't have only been a few city insiders in the Bank of England or the treasury keeping an eye on them, but academics, think tanks and ordinary people, all able to look at their appetite for risk or their lending policies.
Instead we had secrecy, a cosy relationship between the financial sector and the regulators.
As a consequence, we have the sharpest recession since the war, with millions facing redundancy and swingeing cuts in public services.
But this isn't only about economics. It's about society too.
These cuts will harm society. No question about it.
And cutting away at the heart of our society - at the most vulnerable people - is just plain wrong. Morally wrong.
Because this is not a government that governs for all the people. It governs for an elite. It governs for itself.
Look at how it demonises.
David Cameron now seems to tour the country finding new groups to portray as outsiders, or enemies within.
He preaches to Muslims about being good citizens on the same day that the so-called English Defence League are taking their rhetoric of hate and intimidation onto our streets.
Or prisoners. David Cameron says he feels ‘physically sick' - yes, physically sick - at the idea of prisoners having the vote.
He finds that the views of the European Court of Human Rights - set up largely by Britain to promote our values of tolerance and respect - make him physically sick.
That allowing people in prison to retain their right to vote - and in doing so, perhaps help to encourage them to return to the mainstream of society - makes him sick.
I'm proud to be one of just 22 MPs who voted to uphold human rights and to challenge Britain's flouting of European law.
Or protesters. When the police are caught sending undercover officers to spy on legitimate protest groups, where is David Cameron? Silent.
This is Cameron's Britain. If you are healthy and wealthy, all will be well for you. If you went to the right schools, know the right people and give to the right causes, then life will be golden.
But if you are vulnerable, if you need help from others, if you struggle to get by in an increasingly complex and difficult world, then life under the Tories is about to become even more painful.
So we have our job cut out for us as the true opposition to the Conservatives.
The greatest barrier to our fulfilling this role is, of course, the state of our politics and the lack of genuine reform.
The depth of resistance by the establishment to proposals even for the modest change to the Alternative Vote shows us what we're up against.
In increasingly desperate arguments, the Prime Minister's latest objection is that we can't possibly introduce AV because it's apparently too complicated for people to understand.
Well if it really is that difficult for the government to count 1, 2, 3 in order, then it probably raises more questions about their economic competence than it does about the intelligence of the British public.
Meanwhile Lords reform is still held up. Parliament remains largely unchanged.
We saw a huge upswelling of public anger and frustration, but there remains a huge risk that the political elite will duck the issues and hope that anger goes away.
Maybe it will. But my fear is that it will deepen the pervasive and corrosive contempt towards politicians and politics as a whole.
This plays into the hands of the far right. It also benefits those who want a weakened state - big business, the media barons, the mega-rich.
They don't want politics to reflect the will of the people. Instead, they want a supine, discredited politics that allows them to wield their power undisturbed.
So the reform of politics must be one of our tasks. And that's why I've been doing all I can to promote parliamentary modernisation and reform.
Now these may seem like details.
Certainly, compared to the real threats our country faces, MPs expenses or voting systems look a little petty. But without reform, will the real issues ever be tackled?
After all, we've understood the dangers of climate change since the 1980s. Yet successive governments and Parliaments have done little or nothing.
By the time the rises in food and energy prices really bite, it will be too late.
Worse, part of our political inertia is because most of the suffering currently associated with climate change is happening elsewhere.
To echo Neville Chamberlain's words, climate change is mostly affecting people in far-away countries of which we know very little.
Such attitudes are wrong.
And also they are a betrayal of the most fundamental duty of a government - to protect its citizens.
Climate change knows no borders.
And what happens elsewhere will come to affect us, all too soon unless we act now.
As Chamberlain's successor, Winston Churchill, had he faced the threat of climate change would have said - action this day.
Friends, it is a great pleasure to return to Conference and reconnect with the lifeblood of the Party.
And the challenges we face are many. And we see increasingly that they are linked.
And that they stem from the way the country is run by a political elite, hand in glove with the rich and powerful, be they individuals or corporations.
We see that the other parties are in their different ways unfit to change this.
And so we turn to the Greens as the only way we can work with others to challenge these wells-springs of inequality and injustice.
The actions of this government are now sending many more of our fellow citizens down the same road we have travelled.
Millions of people seeing that this government is for the few, not the many.
For the wealthy, not those in need.
They are seeing that the promises of our political elite are worthless.
That they will resist reform at every turn because it diminishes their power.
And that they will neglect the paramount interests of the country - to rebuild our society, to promote peace and justice in the world and to protect our climate - because these may get in the way of making money and preserving their ascendancy.
Those fellow citizens may be coming together to fight the consequences of the government's policies - the cuts and the sell-offs. But soon they will come to see the causes.
That's why the May elections are so important. It is the chance for us to reach out to our fellow citizens and turn their anger and frustration into support for the positive and principled alternative that we offer.
I know we can do this.
So I am confident that when we next meet, in September, it will be to welcome new councillors . And new assembly members.
There is a lot of work we need to do to make this happen.
But what will spur us on is the sight of the other parties, at local level, in the Assembly, and in Westminster.
Their self-interest. Their craven subjection to the power of the market. Their determination to sacrifice public services to pay for the failings of the banks. Their inability to respond to crises like international development or climate change.
We need better. The country needs better.
And they deserve politicians they can trust.
No-one else is providing the principled opposition to the three-party consensus.
This is our job. Our time.