Conference, the challenge facing our country has rarely been so great.
Families and whole communities fearing for their future – in the face of an invisible enemy.
It’s natural and right that in such troubled times, people look to government for reassurance. Help. Leadership.
Given the enormity of the threat to our country, it’s with deep regret and sadness that I must say: this Government and this Prime Minister have just not risen to this challenge.
With unbelievable incompetence, this Conservative Government is failing our people, in one of our darkest hours.
If you judged the UK’s response to this crisis solely on what the Government is doing, it would be easy to despair.
But as I travel the country, listening to people…
As I hear what they are doing to beat the threat of coronavirus – to support their neighbours, save their businesses, care for their relatives…
As they share with me their dreams as well as their worries…
As we all witness how NHS staff, carers and key workers have shown amazing resilience in the face of extraordinary challenges…
I am far from downhearted. I am inspired.
Take Anne and Bob – who own a fish and chip shop in Stockport and put me to work on a lunchtime shift a few weeks ago.
They’d been planning to sell the business and enjoy a well-deserved retirement. Then Covid struck.
Anne and Bob put retirement on hold, to lead their restaurant through the crisis. They put their staff and customers first, and worked harder than ever to save the business.
They hope they’re past the worst now – and can pass the business on to their young manager, Jamie, who’d joined them aged 14, after struggling at school. This amazing couple had nurtured him and feel he is now ready to take over.
Jamie and his partner have just moved house. They are expecting their first child. And his enthusiasm for taking the business forward, after 13 years working there, is uplifting.
I hear stories like this, from people like Anne and Bob and Jamie, in every community I visit.
And I am in awe of how hard people are fighting to prevent this disease from stealing their dreams.
Coronavirus is causing enormous hardship and forcing all of us to make big changes.
But it’s also showing the best of the British people.
People’s resilience, kindness and hard work make me absolutely sure we can get through this.
But it’s those qualities – demonstrated every day by people across Britain – that are in sharp contrast to how Government Ministers have responded to the pandemic.
Just look how Boris Johnson refuses to take even the slightest responsibility for the chaos and harm his Government has caused.
Their failure to get protective gear to frontline workers in hospitals and care homes?
Not his fault.
When Johnson’s chief adviser undermined public trust by breaking lockdown with his trips to Durham and Barnard Castle?
Different rules, for him.
When Johnson’s “world-beating” test-and-trace system turns into a shambles?
Claims instead a huge success.
When children’s entire futures were thrown into doubt by the summer’s results fiasco?
Blame the civil servants.
Blame the teachers.
Blame anyone but Boris Johnson.
Johnson’s hero, Winston Churchill, said that the price of greatness is responsibility. It seems that’s a price this Prime Minister isn’t willing to pay.
When I’ve listened to people who’ve lost loved ones to Covid. Listened to the Bereaved Families our Prime Minister refuses even to meet…
The public inquiry into the Government’s handling of Covid, that I first called for in April, could not be more urgent.
And the public inquiry, when it comes, must look into one Government failure above all.
Ministers’ abject failure to protect people in care homes. The elderly people. And the carers.
From the lack of tests and PPE.
To the lies about a “protective ring” around care homes, while people died in horrifying numbers.
For this pandemic has reminded everyone of something Liberal Democrats have always understood:
caring for people’s health doesn’t stop at the hospital exit, or the GP’s surgery door.
You can only truly protect our NHS, if you protect our care homes too.
You can only truly speak up for doctors and nurses, if in the same breath, you stand up for carers.
For young carers and professional carers…
Paid and unpaid…
In care homes and in people’s homes.
This is personal for me. You see, I’ve been a carer for much of my life.
First as a teenager, when I nursed my mum during her long battle against bone cancer.
My dad had died when I was four. My mum was my whole world.
So on one level, it was easy caring for mum: I loved her.
But it was also incredibly tough.
Taking her tumblers of morphine for her agonising pain – before going off to school.
Coming home to look after her. Helping her on and off the toilet. Taking life, day by day. Because there was nothing else you could do.
And at the end. Visiting her on a totally unsuitable dementia ward in my school uniform, alone by her bedside. When she died.
I was a carer as a son. And then as a grandson:
Organising the care for my Nanna, getting her into a good home, figuring out how we could afford it.
Trying to make her last few years as comfortable as we could.
And now, as a father. As Emily and I care for our son John every day.
John is 12. He can’t walk by himself. He was 9 when he first managed to say “Daddy”.
John needs 24/7 care – and probably always will.
And that’s my biggest challenge: John will be on this planet long after Emily and I have gone.
So we worry. No one can possibly love him like we do. Hold him like we hold him.
And our fears are shared by so many parents. Many not as fortunate as Emily and me.
So let me say this, to all of you who need care…
To all of you who are carers…
To the parents of disabled children…
To the thousands of young people, caring for your mum or your dad.
I understand what you’re going through.
And I promise you this:
I will be your voice. I will be the voice of the 9 million carers in our country.
It’s you I’m fighting for.
Just like we Liberal Democrats did in Government, when we fought to tackle the funding crisis in adult social care.
Through the Dilnot Commission and the Care Act, we carefully stitched together a cross-party agreement, based on the same values that underpin our NHS.
Only to see the Conservatives rip it up, as soon as they could.
So now, more than a million people miss out on the care support they need.
With people stranded in hospital, unable to leave, as the follow-up care isn’t there. With the challenge passed back to the NHS, already struggling for cash.
You see, if Ministers really care about the NHS, they need to care about care.
The cross-party talks on social care – long promised by Boris Johnson – cannot wait any longer.
The Covid crisis makes the need to fix social care more urgent, not less.
So, today, our Health and Care Spokesperson Munira Wilson and I have invited the Government, the Labour Party, and leading care organisations to begin these talks in earnest and finally make the progress people deserve.
And I’m proud that our party is now championing a universal basic income – because by far the largest group to benefit will be carers.
I am determined that the Liberal Democrats will lead the way to a more caring society as we emerge from this pandemic.
A society that cares for those whose jobs and businesses have been taken by coronavirus.
Our economy was unfair enough before this.
But we cannot allow the random unfairness of this pandemic to scar people’s lives, especially the young.
We must stand together. Leaving no one behind.
Employers in hard-hit sectors must be given more support, to prevent many more people losing their jobs.
People excluded from the self-employed scheme must be given the help they desperately need.
And Liberal Democrats: we must also lead the way to a new economy.
One that’s fairer. And greener. An economy offering real hope and opportunity for everyone.
This pandemic has already changed so much.
The daily commute. The congested roads. The lunchtime sandwich.
Home-working may have changed that for ever.
But as we weigh the positives of home-working – more time with the family. More time to care.
With the negatives – too much isolation. Too many working with too little space.
I want us to listen to people – to understand how they want their working lives to be.
The Conservatives aren’t listening. Their answer is all about going back.
Back to the office. Back to the old ways.
I say: let’s do the future differently. Starting by finding out what people want.
We can’t let Dominic Cummings – in his NASA-style Whitehall mission control – plan our future.
No. The future will be shaped by people and businesses in every community across the UK.
So as we listen to people, we must listen to people in business.
Businesses that create jobs and opportunities for people across the UK.
Businesses facing the Covid challenge. The Brexit challenge. The climate challenge.
No one else is listening to them. So the Liberal Democrats will.
And in partnership with business, let’s mould the new economy.
So if there’s less demand for office space, let’s work with businesses to turn those buildings into sustainable, affordable homes to help solve the housing crisis.
If there’s less demand for air travel – let’s switch investment from Heathrow’s doomed third runway into green zero-carbon flight, and save jobs in our aerospace sector.
If there’s less demand for oil and gas, let’s work with industry to transition the UK into the world-leader in clean energy technologies – from hydrogen for heating to tidal for power.
If you listen and work with business, you can build new green industries, with thousands of green jobs.
I know, because I’ve done it.
In government, we Liberal Democrats helped make the UK the world-leader in offshore wind.
We brought green jobs to the UK’s nations and regions. Something the Tories said simply wasn’t possible.
Like the Siemens factory in Hull, where they now produce the incredible 75-metre-long blades for offshore wind turbines.
It has created more than 1,000 new jobs – in a city that once had the country’s highest unemployment.
It has breathed new life into a dock, long after its original purpose died.
Once, ships left Alexandra Dock full of coal, to be burnt in the dirty power stations of the past.
Now, ships leave Alexandra Dock carrying wind turbines, to be installed in the clean power stations of the future.
Liberal Democrats did that.
By listening to business, and in partnership with business.
And that’s how we can build the new green economy we need.
But if we want to change the country’s future, we first have to change our party.
It’s an incredibly humbling thing to be elected leader of the party I joined 30 years ago.
I’d like to thank Layla Moran, for making the leadership campaign a positive one, full of ideas and energy.
And it’s a huge privilege to follow in the footsteps of my personal hero, Paddy Ashdown. Of the great Charles Kennedy. And of my good friend, the wonderful Jo Swinson.
Jo did our party proud. Parliament is so much poorer without her.
But Jo leaves a fitting legacy: the first majority of women MPs in our parliamentary party, ever.
And Jo, I want to follow your lead, and make our party the most diverse party in British politics.
Because, my friends, we are right to take the knee, and support the Black Lives Matter movement.
But unless we have more black members, more black Councillors… Unless we have black Liberal Democrat MPs…
Can we truly say we are listening to Britain’s black communities as they demand a voice?
Friends, we need to listen to everyone.
I am proud of everything we stand for as a party and everything we have achieved together.
The listening I’m talking about. The listening we need to do. It isn’t about changing our values.
We will always be a proud Liberal party:
Defending individuals. Nurturing community. Protecting civil liberties. Championing the environment.
Patriotic. Internationalist. And yes, always pro-European.
These values are why I love this party.
But we have endured three deeply disappointing general elections, in five tough years.
At the national level at least, too many people think we’re out of touch with what they want.
We can’t fix this with a catchy new slogan. Or by fighting the same battles, in the same way.
The answer is to listen to what people are really telling us. And to change.
We know that people want a better future for themselves and their families.
So let’s show them that the Liberal Democrats can build that better future.
That we will help them get on in life.
Let’s show that we’re a party that understands the worries that keep people up at night.
That can deliver on the things that matter most to them.
And let’s show that we stand for fairness. For the rights of every individual.
But to do all this, we can’t just talk to ourselves. We can’t just speak for people like us.
We have to represent the whole country, not just some people.
We are not a think tank or a pressure group. We don’t exist merely to put forward ideas or espouse a set of principles – however noble they may be.
We are a political party.
If we want to help people get on, and build a fairer, greener, more caring future, we have to win.
And that is why, next May, we must get more Liberal Democrats elected to councils across England, to the Assembly in London, to the Senedd in Wales and – crucially – to Parliament in Scotland.
Elections often determine the future of our country, but these Scottish elections could well determine if our country has a future.
Once again, the forces of nationalism threaten to tear our family of nations apart.
So it is imperative that we get brilliant Liberal Democrat MSPs elected to Holyrood in May…
To reject more division and instead put forward a positive partnership.
To work for Scotland and work for a better United Kingdom.
This is why we must change. So people choose positively to elect more Liberal Democrat MPs at the next General Election.
To kick the Tories out of Government and Johnson out of Number 10.
To restore compassion to our politics and justice to our society.
To champion the values of liberty, equality and community.
To tackle the climate emergency and build green jobs and opportunity for all.
It’s only by listening…
by rebuilding our connection to people in communities across the UK…
by demonstrating that we are on their side, that we do want to help them get on…
that we can win those elections and make a real difference to people’s lives.
Only then can we guarantee Anne and Bob the dignity in retirement they deserve.
Only then can we make sure that Jamie’s child grows up in a country of genuine opportunity.
Only then can we give all disabled children and young carers real hope for the future.
That is the mission now before us. So let’s get to it.