Chair, conference, fellow social democrats.
It’s good to be back in Church House. And we meet at an important time – before a general election. So first, I’d like you to imagine, if you will, the plight of the ordinary British voter in an ordinary British election. You turn up at a polling station with your card, get your ballot paper, enter the booth… pencil at the ready… to put your cross against… against what?
It’s at that moment you see the dreadful choice before you. A list of political parties that have beggared the country – none of which share your values. And that’s the outstanding and appalling fact about British politics today – the establishment parties are simply not good enough.
So, in all humility, I’d like to offer the British voter some advice. To offer just 8 points about the next election. This is a Dear Voter speech…
Point 1 – Vote positively and vote freely
The right to vote was won against massive resistance. Voting is a right and a duty but it’s also an opportunity.
“For people in this country who don’t have money or power in industry – it’s the vote that’s their main safeguard for the future.”
That was Tony Benn in 1976. Benn was right and the 2016 EU referendum – and the reaction to it – proved he was right. So vote positively. If, like us, you believe that railways and utilities should be in public ownership – vote for it.
And remember that no vote is wasted. The 79 votes that Auberon Waugh received as the ‘Dog Lovers’ Candidate’ against Jeremy Thorpe in the 70s weren’t wasted. At the very least, they sent a message – that it’s wrong to shoot people’s pets. I’m being flippant, but you get the point.
Point 2 – Don’t vote Tory
I can’t stress this enough. Because the Tories see this country not as our home but as a shop. Is that fair? Let’s look at the evidence…
Public assets – which we already owned – sold off: British Gas, British Coal, British Steel , British Energy, British Rail, British Ports, Royal Ordnance, 10 separate water companies, 12 separate electricity boards, The Severn Bridge, The Royal Mail… I could go on. Many of these are now under foreign control – which means profits siphoned off abroad. Utilities turned into a casino – with no regard to the long term effects to our rivers or our balance of trade.
As Harold Macmillan said at the time… ‘first the Georgian silver goes, then all the nice furniture and then the Canelettos go…’ True.
But fencing off national assets doesn’t stop there. Our key industrial firms to been picked off one by one by foreign competitors. Cadburys, Rowntree Mackintosh, ICI, British Steel, Pilkington, Corus… again, I could go on. No sensible state does this. The South Koreans don’t do it. The Japanese don’t do it.
Selling the family farm is in the DNA of the Tory party. Proof piles upon proof… They are the asset strippers of British politics – and of Britain itself. Remember, this is the party that traded away our fishing waters – which is a bit like owning an orchard and letting people take the apples. In fact, allowing the country to be run by the Tories is like putting a child in the hands of someone with the parenting skills of Jean Jacques Rousseau or Karl Marx. Unwise. This is not conservatism of any description. It’s low, base, spivvery. And it’s unpatriotic.
A few months ago I was at Kings Cross waiting for my train. I needed to fill my water bottle but the tap on the first floor was out of order. I was told there was a water station in the corner on the ground floor… when I reached it I saw it required me to download an app to dispense the water. It wasn’t a public water fountain. It was a machine for trading data for drinking water… Who allows this to happen? What are their values?
A wise person once said: If you screw the workers you screw the company. I think, if you screw the people you screw the country. Everything, it seems, is for sale.
The Portuguese poet Luiz Vas de Camoes in his epic work the Lusiadas chronicled the age of discovery. It’s a magical poem. Caravelas traversing shipless oceans, across the horizon into the new world. There’s a line where Camoes writes… ‘And if there had been other lands to discover, we would have found them’. I think, if there was anything left to sell… the Tories would have sold it…
Point 3 – Don’t vote for anyone that doesn’t know what a woman is
Now, two years ago on this very stage I mocked Rachel Reeves on this… but the confusion continues. Nick Ferrari poses the question: ‘So a woman can have a penis? Ed Davey replies: ‘Well, quite clearly’.
Andrew Marr asks the question: ‘Is it transphobic to say that only women have a cervix?’. Keir Starmer replies, ‘It’s something that shouldn’t be said. It is not right…’
What a mess. Do you really think Starmer and Davey can’t tell Arthur from Martha? Really? Or are they just scared of telling the truth? But seriously, treating transgender people with dignity and respect does not require the deconstruction of the meaning of the word woman or the denial of women’s rights. Trans women are not women. If they were the prefix wouldn’t be required. What we need is respect for reality. And the reality is that some people have gender dysphoria but, also, there are boundaries – in sport, spaces and other places – where sex-based rights must come first. That’s reasonable – which is why it’s SDP policy.
Whether they know it or not, Starmer and Davey are part of a progressive war against observation, objectivity and reason. Basically, a war against the enlightenment foundations of the west. This is serious. This must be defeated and it will be defeated by mobilising the majority who oppose it.
John Gray put the opportunity perfectly: “The left gave up the struggle against class inequality a generation ago, replacing it with the self-serving poses of bourgeois identity politics, while liberals colluded with corporate capitalism in dismissing the dying communities of America’s post-industrial wastelands as retrograde sections of humanity. It’s too late for progressives to regain working-class support.” Correct. It is too late. We’ll see them at the ballot box…
Point 4: Elect national leaders, not charity workers
’I think it’s my job to maximise global welfare not national welfare.’ Famously, that was Gus O’Donnell former Head of The Civil Service. Now you might ask – how do you become Head of the Civil Service if you think like that? But this view is normal among the new elite. They’re conditioned to criticise and repudiate Britain’s past which leads to a disposition – an attitude – of civilisational guilt, apology, atonement and self-effacement. ‘Charity syndrome’ is the result. That’s what you get. So instead of tackling our own problems, our elite – rather pompously – prefers missionary work. They think about Lagos when it’s their job to think about Leeds. The Scottish NHS thinks about reparations when it should be treating Scots. This is because they see Britain not as a country but as an NGO.
In this atmosphere, the idea of ‘national citizen preference’ – actually governing in the interests of your own people – becomes impossible. National self-assertion collapses. The best example of this capitulation is the collapse of our national border. And yet the people that govern us seem to have no idea how dangerous this is.
My point is – as we’ve seen from the tragic events in Israel, the chaos in Lampedusa and the war in Ukraine – the world is a very dangerous place. The West is drunk on civil rights but short on duty. What we need is protection. As Philip Kiszely said recently – wanting the keys to your own house is the most natural thing in the world. And you can’t have that without a border.
Point 5: Don’t Divide Us
I wish it weren’t so, but we’re going backwards. American race-based politics have been imported into the UK. We didn’t ask for this. It’s not just the Critical Race Theory which our institutions have lapped up. A general racialisation of thinking has seeped into our culture. At the banal level it’s people saying things like… this town, or the countryside or Radio 3 is so white – as if that’s a crime. And very often the person saying this is white.
Sadiq Khan – whose officials think a white family can’t ‘represent real Londoners’ is a specialist in this type of division. Labour’s Anneliese Dodds is another – keen to blame any racial disparity in mortgages, rent payments, health, whatever – on systemic racism. This is simplistic nonsense as Tony Sewell’s CRED report exposed – based on nostrums too brittle to withstand any proper scrutiny.
And it’s self-defeating. Constantly attacking your own country as racist, the country that nurtures you is like cutting off the branch you’re sitting on. And only a fool would do that – or someone that actually hates the whole tree. We want a more equal society and if you deliberately divide people into opposing camps something important is lost, namely, the social solidarity that we all need to share and to succeed.
And on the question of building social solidarity – we must end our reckless addiction to mass immigration. Like any other addict, the dose this country requires to get a hit goes up and up. We’re now importing over 1m people a year – a sure sign of a labour market in crisis. Plundering doctors and nurses from poor countries is certainly immoral. I’ve worked in a hospital in West Africa. If you remove nurses kids don’t get innoculated and they die. But this policy also disincentivises training and lowers wages here in the UK. It must do. Meanwhile, over 5m fellow citizens are on out of work benefits effectively left on the scrapheap.
The impact on social cohesion of rapid demographic change has barely been considered. It’s a fundamentally mistaken view, I think, to believe that a continuation of very high immigration without any thought to integration will make community relations better. It won’t. On the contrary, it becomes more challenging.
Look at the scenes of people in Manchester and London – or Rotterdam and Sydney for that matter – openly celebrating the murder of Israeli civilians. Social division has become a critical question across the west. I think if we want to remain anything like a coherent society a generation-long mass immigration pause is essential. It’s a pre-conditon. The country needs a breather. We need the space and the time to find a new us. But to return to my main point to voters – there is no future in grievance politics – for any of us – so don’t vote for it.
Point 6: Vote for conviction politicians
In other words, vote for people who believe in a few things and will actually fight for them. Imagine a man… who opposed the monarchy but takes a knighthood. Who fought bitterly to prevent his country from governing itself, but now can’t do a press conference without a standing next to a British flag. Who became leader of his party by promising to take railways and utilities into public ownership but then suddenly changed his mind… Who wanted to abolish tuition fees… but now doesn’t. A man in other words, who cannot make a pledge without reversing it. You know the man I describe…And the point is this. When a person is as flexible as Starmer – you have to ask – does he actually believe in anything at all? More to the point… how would the public know?
Point 7: Trade Deficits Matter
Let me just say, you know I talk about the deficit a lot – but it’s critical. If you think we can run trade deficits of tens of billions year after year and not slide deeper into debt you can’t add up, This isn’t some elaborate economic theory, it’s just accounting. We just get poorer. It’s Beggars Day.
All of the good things: transport, the NHS, education, roads, defence, pensions are predicated on how this country makes its way in the world. How we earn a living. And the cretinous ramblings you hear – particularly from Labour politicians – about spending cuts are meaningless unless you understand that trade – both internal and external and the taxing the proceeds of trade underpins all state spending. You can’t tax a loss. You can borrow, but in the long run you spend what you earn.
And on the other side you have free trade purists who argue that our deficit is somehow a vote of confidence in UK PLC. They’re just kidding themselves. It’s like a crack dealer telling their addict – no, I really believe in you. Conservatives used to understand this.
“It is in fact a waste of time to consider at length where we stand as between the alternatives of Free Trade and Protection. We’re offered no such choice. We must choose between Protection and one-sided free imports… And if this indeed be the choice, I am a protectionist.” That’s F. E. Smith at Chatham in 1909. He was right.
We’ve been getting trade policy wrong for 40 years and many of our factories have closed as a result. Trade policy must serve the national interest not ideology. We know that our trade problem will only be cured when we end our indifference about what is made where and by whom.
Before I make my final plea to voters, I have a few thank yous to make and a quick review of the year. It’s been another good year for us. After Wayne Dixon took Middleton Park in Leeds in 2022 my advice at last year’s conference in Manchester was keep on going and win again. And we did.
Despite a massive resistance by Labour and a lot of money spent, Emma Pogson-Golden took the SDP’s second seat on Leeds City Council in May securing nearly 2,000 votes. But there was more to it than that. Emma worked in a local school. But as an employee of the Council she couldn’t stand in a Leeds City Council election. So Emma gave her job up – a job she loved – in order to stand for the SDP in her community. If you want to know why the SDP wins elections in Leeds – you have the answer just there.
In May we fought local elections all over the country and we contested 3 Parliamentary by-elections in the past year. Julien Yvon stood in Stretford and Urmston in December – during a postal strike – gaining valuable experience for the North West region. In June Steve Gardner stood in Uxbridge, gaining a very creditable 6th place out of 17 candidates. And John Waterston stood in Selby getting our highest percentage vote in a by-election since 1989. Well done all. By-elections are tough but you get better at doing something by doing it.
A few thank yous: A thousand thanks to Valerie, Robert, Paul, Dan, Ross and Paula the key office holders of the party. Without whom… Thanks also to my colleagues on the National Coordinating Committee and to all our candidates, campaigners and regional organisers throughout the country. Thanks to Michael Taylor – my co-presenter on Wednesday Night Fightback. Thanks to Paula and Kathy – authors of the forthcoming SDP Green Paper on Agriculture. Thanks to Olly for his film making. Thanks to Kyn and William for technical assistance. And thanks to Rod Liddle, Patrick O’Flynn and Joanna Williams – journalists who are ‘out and proud’ Social Democrats. Special thanks to the London Branch for staging the conference, to our guest speakers and to all of you for coming along. Thank you. And finally, thanks to the wider SDP… all over… from Wendy’s pottery, to the Young Social Democrats, to Peter Wheeler’s Tweetings. We are the SDP.
So, to my final and most important point to voters. Last year we said: ‘It can’t go on like this’. But it will… unless we do something about it. The cure is to vote for a party which sees Britain not a shop or a charity but as our home. A homecoming. At the start of my speech I talked about the plight of British voters in a normal election – but the next election isn’t going to be a normal election. Because for the first time in decades millions of people will once again have the chance to vote for the Social Democratic Party. A party that believes the things they believe and will build the country they want.
Our manifesto will be defined by our beliefs: The social market, the family as the foundation of society, decent affordable housing, in voting reform. The belief that industry matters, that you can’t be a state without a borders, that we must cure ourselves of our twin addictions of debt and mass immigration. And, most importantly, that we must bring this country together to find a new us.
The SDP has never been – and never will be – in the angry corner of politics. We’re not concerned with single issues or the selfishness of particular groups. Our mission is the concerns of the mainstream majority. That’s where the real power of social democracy lies. In mobilising that majority.
Someone once said that you should do three things in life: Build a house, write a book and stand for parliament. Well, not everyone can build a house. And I think Chris Hitchens was right when he said ‘everyone has a book in them and in most cases that’s exactly where it should stay. But standing for parliament – that’s very possible.
What I’m asking for is all hands on the SDP deck. If you can donate, please donate. We’re not bankrolled by big money or unions. That’s why we have our own voice. If you can help out, please do so. If you can stand for election, please step up.
Next year we aim to make history. To get our best result in a generation. And to re-establish the SDP as a truly national party once again. That will be a homecoming – for us and for the country. We have a wonderful chance here. All of us. Let’s take it.