London Region Conference speech

Ten years ago, I was in the run up to my first general election as a candidate (seems like only yesterday!) – and looking round the room now, it is great to see how much progress we as a party have made in London.

It’s not just that I’m up here speaking to you (though the bit of near-miraculous progress that saw me get elected to Parliament is one pretty dear to my heart!) – but back before the 1997 general election there was only one Liberal Democrat MP in London – and it felt like it had been that way for ever.

And as for the idea back then that here in Camden we might actually be running the council, or that we might have real chances of electing a Liberal Democrat MP in Lewisham or that the Labour-Tory battleground of Brent might have a Lib Dem council and a Lib Dem MP … or indeed just over the road in Haringey that we might even have a solitary councillor let alone an MP! Well now we have 27 councillors and I am the MP!

We have all together come a long, long way. Whether it is due to your hard work delivering leaflets, talking on the doorsteps, improving councils, working with the media or – my own speciality – nagging until we get things done – the results are here for us all to see.

Not just in election results but in the way we’ve been changing the way we are governed. We have set the agenda on so very many things.

Door-to-door recycling used to the preserve of Liberal Democrat campaigns – now Labour and the Tories have embraced it too. Success!

Devolving power down to areas and neighbourhoods used to be opposed by Labour and Tories – now they too talk about decentralising – though their words come more easily than their deeds.

And we still lead the way – as with Richmond’s innovations in relating residents’ parking charges to the pollution impact of the cars.

All these achievements have been won thanks to the hard work and steely motivation of you all in this room – and many others not here with us.

The way so many of you keep going year after year trying to make your part of the world just that little bit better reminds me rather of a quote from Horace Mann about how we should “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity”.

And the tragic news of the latest round of gun crimes in London reminds us all how much we need more victories for humanity.

The problems gun crime and gang culture raise are not amenable to overnight solutions or sudden initiatives – the usual Labour response to so many issues.

Though – to be fair – I think Blair’s recent response has got this more right than Cameron.

We do need to address the issues of young people carrying guns, and that may include revising some of the sentencing rules. But longer sentences (if you are caught) (and if you are convicted) are only a small part of any solution.

Not only are most people who commit crimes not caught, but given the state of our prisons – and the shockingly high re-offending rates – for those who are caught, far too often prison is but a pause between crimes. A welcome pause, but only a pause.

It’s a matter of in the door, welcome to the university of crime, out the door, welcome to another crime.

And yes, even our call for more police on the street is not the whole answer either.

Where Blair was right was in his call for a better witness protection scheme. In order to convict you need witnesses to come forward.

But the gang members won’t dis another gang member. And the witnesses won’t risk speaking out. So the guilty gang members escape.

I well remember how, during the 2005 election, a woman rang me in despair because both her son and her grandson were up for murder. And she said they had a loving home – but their aspiration was to be a criminal – to be somebody and to be in a gang.

So it won’t be easy and it won’t be quick; it may be hard, it may be challenging; but it is a must – changing this cancerous culture of guns and gangs.

It is not a culture that has a grip across the whole nation or in all communities. There are other issues for the crisis in youth behaviour – and the recent UNICEF report raises a whole host of other problems – but that is not the essence of this gun culture problem – which has been around for years but which is in the spotlight right now.

Where David Cameron got it wrong was in thinking that the answer is to just dish out blame, back to basics style.

His comments were an offence to all the single parents who bring their children up in loving, decent homes.

Now yes – of course – role models are vital. And good male role models are vital.

But you can’t force people to stay together – even with tax breaks. (And frankly, what sort of home would it be where the parents only stick together to get a better tax code?)

That isn’t the answer. The answer lies in getting fathers involved and the mothers supported.

Rather than trying to force couples together, we can look at the way schools often in their actions end up making it easy for fathers to drop away – and even push them away.

For schools so often work through the female, maternal network. It can – for example – be difficult for separated couples to go together to parents’ evenings. So often only one of the separated parents attends – normally the mother – and neither the school nor the father makes an effort to get in touch with the other. And so the men drop away.

In America they have something called Dads and Doughnuts. Whatever. It’s a night when father’s come to school without the mums but with the children. It gives fathers an easy route to be good fathers and engage in the school life of their offspring – separately from the mothers.

And there are so many other soft measures that could and would help. That’s where we need to be working.

And education. Black boys’ education in some areas falls way behind. That’s where we need to be working too.

And with the community leaders – we need to work on the good role models – so that the aspiration is not to carry a gun and be a criminal – but to be a good member of the community, working for a decent living and raising a family.

Turning to the issue of discrimination: it doesn’t directly cause crime, and it doesn’t excuse it. But racial discrimination does exist in far too many parts of our society, and it is a contributory factor to that sense of alienation and anger which gang culture feeds on.

We should also remember that discrimination boomerangs back to affect even the majority group.

When we have problems like the disproportionate use of stop and search on black and Asian Londoners, it’s not just them who suffer – so does everyone else from the police time wasted by the fact that an innocent black man is far more likely to be stopped by the police than an innocent white man.

That disproportionality means police time is taken away from catching criminals whose next victim could be any one of us.

And finally, turning to our own party. We have to be honest and recognise that our ability to champion improvements in our community is restricted if we don’t fully reflect those communities.

Right across the breadth of the challenge facing us – we make life harder for ourselves and we make success less likely if we come over as white people lecturing others on how to behave.

And that is why being serious about changing the make-up of our Parliamentary Party at the next general election is so important – and before that – on the London Assembly.

There has been a lot of talk in the party recently about Ming’s initiative with the diversity fund. I’ll simply say this – we all need it to succeed.

But in the end it is not about listening to what others – like myself – say.

The real power to bring about change lies with you, inside your head. Do you want to just sit back and comment on the world – clapping here, tut-tutting there? Or will you roll up your sleeves and get to work in your communities? Do you want to just complain about the world – or do you also want to change it?

So why not, each of you here tonight, resolve to do the following?

Visit three ethnic minority members or local residents in your ward or area within the next four weeks. And talk to them. If they are members – ask them to think about standing for council. If they are not members, ask them to get involved.

Want a change? Then help make it happen. Because that’s the only way it is going to happen!

Which is why I’d end on another quote – this time from our former Liberal MP, Russell Johnston:

“A liberal society will be built only with the bricks of effort and the mortar of persistence. And it is to you that the challenge is made. It is upon you that responsibility rests. It is with you that hope resides.”

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