Today the Leader of the Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg outlined the principles behind the party's General Election Manifesto.
Last week’s phoney election campaign was a depressing experience.
The other parties managed to produce a greatest hits compilation of almost everything that has turned people off politics.
Airbrushed posters, meaningless slogans.
All set against the spectacle of the Government turning in on itself when the country is crying out for leadership.
But most depressing of all was that we learned that the Labour and Conservative parties have decided to run their election campaigns as if the world hadn’t changed:
Bombarding people with gimmicks and promises the country can no longer afford.
Treating people like children, as if winning elections is simply about who can provide the best shopping list of policies to buy off voter groups one by one.
Nobody believes a word of it.
Certainly not the voters and probably not even the politicians.
It really can’t go on like this.
I start this election year with a different assumption: voters know the game’s up for the old politics.
Shopping lists of pledges don’t wash any more. The politics of plenty are over.
After the expenses scandals most people will have no time for implausible promises and no interest in attempts to buy their favour with cheap trinkets.
But neither are they interested in relentless prophecies of doom and despair.
Faced with these new circumstances, I start from three simple beliefs:
First, treat voters like grown ups. People know that the country faces one of the greatest crises in our public finances in generations. They know that difficult decisions must be taken. So they want politicians to spell out their priorities, spell out the choices, rather than live in denial about the dilemmas we face.
Vince Cable and I have gone further than any other politicians in spelling out some of the steps which must now be taken to address the deficit and redirect money to our priorities: a 10% levy on banks profits as long as they are underwritten by the taxpayer; no to the like-for-like replacement of Trident; an end to tax credits to above average income families; cancelling the Government’s Baby Bond scheme; a £400 cap on all public sector pay increases.
These cuts and revenue raising measures are, in our view, unavoidable if we are to persuade people that we are serious – and we are deadly serious – about tackling Gordon Brown’s astronomical deficit, yet alone generate the resources we need for our social and political priorities.
Second, the importance of conviction. I have heard the claim that at a time of crisis in the Government’s finances, values and conviction must take a backseat to the immediate task of balancing the books.
I strongly disagree.
I do not believe it is possible to balance the books, yet alone transform British society, unless you are guided by strong values which guide you through the difficult choices which now must be made.
People will not support a Government which merely presents itself as a team of bean counting accountants – just as it will dismiss a Government living in denial about the enormity of the task ahead.
People want leadership that is realistic about the difficult decisions ahead, but optimistic about the way forward and guided by clear values.
The party which will win the argument in this year’s election campaign is the party which finds a way of marrying credibility and hope, restraint and generosity, discipline and compassion. That is what the Liberal Democrats will provide.
And, third, stick to the big ideas. The coming election will be no ordinary election. For once, the hype about the future of Britain being at stake is true.
Elections should be an opportunity for us all to ask: where next?
And for voters to choose.
As a country, we face acute social, environmental, economic and political problems.
The next Government will not only need to deal with the immediate crisis in the public finances.
It must reinvent our rotten political system, heal the social divisions which still thwart the hopes of millions, and put our economy on a new, more balanced, more sustainable footing.
None of this can be achieved if we merely tinker at the edges – the Labour and Conservative approach.
Talk of change is cheap.
Delivering big, permanent change is the real challenge.
We are putting our cards on the table now.
The heart of our manifesto will be short, direct and to the point.
We have stripped away everything that is not essential because the country cannot afford it.
We have isolated only two areas where we will make immediate, significant additional spending pledges: in education and in infrastructure investment.
And both will be funded from specific cuts in other areas of current Government spending.
No other party in British politics today has taken such a deliberate step to be open and credible with the British people about what we can and cannot afford.
And, yes, that means that some multi billion pound spending commitments we have promoted in the past – like new free childcare entitlements, a new citizen’s pension or free personal care – will no longer be firm commitments in our manifesto, but will be put on hold until they become affordable again. And some of our other pledges such as the scrapping of tuition fees will have to be phased in over a longer period of time.
Our manifesto is based on a single insight: that the dreadful crises we have faced gives us the chance to reshape our country. And it is built on one simple and very British value: fairness.
Making this country fair will not be easy. There are huge vested interests standing in the way.
We will offer the British people the chance to vote for the four steps that are essential for a fairer Britain.
Only four. But they are four big changes – more significant than anything Labour or the Conservatives will offer at this election - that together will reshape the country we live in.
A new, fair start for all children at school.
A rebalanced, green economy.
And clean, open politics.
Four steps to a fairer Britain.
Why have we chosen these four priorities?
What do they say about the kind of society we are seeking to build?
As I set out in a pamphlet this Autumn, The Liberal Moment, I believe power, opportunity, good fortune is unfairly distributed in Britain.
I want fairness to be hardwired into every aspect of British life.
It’s just plain wrong that a child born in the poorest neighbourhood of Sheffield today will on average die fourteen years before a child born in the wealthiest neighbourhood down the road.
It’s just plain wrong that the City of London has been cossetted for years while first rate manufacturing companies have been ignored.
It’s just plain wrong that young people leaving school, College and University find it so difficult to get a foot on the property ladder, a steady job, and are saddled with crippling debt before their adult lives have even started.
It’s just plain wrong that our political system is the plaything of two old parties who do not represent the vast majority of people in Britain today.
It’s just plain wrong that a wealthy banker pays a lower rate of tax on his capital gains than his cleaner does on her monthly wages.
As a Liberal, I passionately believe in the potential of everyone to do well for themselves, their families, their communities – if only they are allowed and supported to do so.
That is why I have never shared the pessimism of the Labour party, a party still fixated with the idea that people’s lives can only be improved if someone in Whitehall tells them what to do.
That is why I have always rejected the lack of compassion and imagination of the Conservative Party, a party still fixated with giving tax breaks to the wealthy few rather than opportunity to the aspirant many.
My liberalism, then, is all about giving people the power to get ahead.
Fairness means opportunity is for everyone.
And that means that power must be dispersed, and never allowed to accumulate among elites – be they political, social or corporate – who inevitably exercise that power in their own interests.
It is the failure to disperse power that has made Britain unfair.
It was the failure to disperse the excess power accumulating in the City of London and the global financial markets that brought about the economic collapse.
And it was the failure to disperse political power that made politicians so isolated from reality that they created the expenses scandal.
The four priorities we will set out in our manifesto will put power back into people’s hands.
They will upend the status quo and dismantle, once and for all, the vested interests that have dominated our political and social life for too long.
They will make Britain the fair country I believe people want it to be.
Our tax plan would be the biggest tax reform in a generation.
It is needed because, in our society, money gives people power.
When money is unevenly distributed, so is power.
Of course, no tax system should try to create total equality of income.
But it can and should help redistribute some wealth – and power – to alleviate the worst excesses of inequality.
Under Labour’s unfair taxes, however, power is taken away from the poorest and given to the richest because the poorest 20% pay the highest proportion of their income in tax….
While the richest people and the biggest corporations can effectively pick and choose what taxes to pay.
That is why tax reform is top of our list.
Only when everyone pays their fair share, and no-one is crippled by their tax bill, will we have a fair society.
We will close loopholes for the richest and introduce a tax on mansions to fund tax cuts of £700 for everyone else.
No-one will pay income tax on the first £10,000 they earn, meaning tax freedom for millions of low earners and pensioners, while millions more get hundreds of pounds back in their pockets.
The biggest tax reform in generations.
A level of change you will never see proposed by the other parties.
Only the Liberal Democrats will make taxes permanently fair.
Next: we will give every child the fair start they deserve by reducing class sizes and increasing one to one tuition in our schools.
Nothing is more important in dispersing power and delivering opportunities to people of every background than education, especially education when children are very young.
As a report I commissioned on social mobility from Martin Narey in 2008 concluded, bright but poor children are still being left behind in our school system.
Social disadvantage is reflected in class results from an early age.
Countless young boys and girls are falling behind at school not because of a lack of potential, but because of the circumstances of their birth.
This is not only unfair on them – it blights the education of the whole class when some pupils start falling behind the rest and the class is unable to move forward as one.
Any teacher, any parent of young children, knows that a successful school with happy, fulfilled children depends on children studying happily together rather than pulling apart.
That is why, following on directly from Martin’s conclusions, we are devoting significant new resources to our schools, freed up by taking above average income families out of the tax credit system.
The money will be targeted directly at the most deprived children.
We know for a fact this is the only way to make society fair.
The only way to ensure, over the long term, that every child has opportunities, no matter their background, their home town or their parent’s bank balance.
We’ll be putting more money, £2.5 billion, into schools to pay for more teachers, better discipline and catch-up classes.
Cutting class sizes so children get the individual attention they need to thrive.
Schools receiving an average of £2,500 extra per pupil for each of the million most deprived children in the country they teach.
Of course, an education is little use if there’s nothing for you to do once you leave school or college.
So the third building block of a fair society is economic opportunity.
There are nearly 100,000 square miles in Britain.
For the last thirty years, politicians have been obsessed with just one of them: the City of London.
We will never have a fair society while this is allowed to continue.
The big, permanent change we offer is a shift away from the traditional over-reliance on the City of London and on financial services.
We will usher in a new era where growth is enabled in every part of Britain.
And we place a new emphasis on infrastructure, on people, and on green technology.
Growth that lasts.
Our vision is that, 10 years from now, our economy will be very different from the one we have today. Instead of bias towards the city, there will be balance. Instead of short-term fixes, we will seek growth that lasts.
Thriving local and regional banks, tied into their communities, with real knowledge of their customers, instead of the faceless global leviathans of the international markets.
Diverse, thriving town centres each with their own identity instead of identikit high streets dominated by global retailers.
Reliable transport infrastructure so people can get to work without it costing a fortune or costing the planet.
Wealthy people encouraged to channel their money into supporting local entrepreneurs instead of ferreting it away in offshore accounts.
Each community, home, and office generating its own power and heat locally, instead of reliant on the centralised, polluting energy grid.
None of that will happen under any party other than the Liberal Democrats.
Labour and the Conservatives want to prop up the City, because finance is the only kind of prosperity they understand.
If that is allowed to happen, the only thing that is certain is that we will find ourselves facing the same problems all over again in years to come.
We are the only party that doesn’t just want to rebuild the economy – we want to change it permanently so that we have growth that lasts.
The final change is the one that makes the others possible.
The fair society we seek to build will not be possible without it.
Our corrupt politics is not capable of driving through change.
It exists to block it, to protect the status quo and maintain the vested interests of an old elite.
Only a party which will really disperse power, breaking open the sorry, stale system of governance, rebuilding local government, and embracing fair votes for every level of election can reinvigorate our democracy.
From the smallest parish council to the corridors of Westminster, we have to create a politics that opens its doors to every citizen.
A politics that is open, transparent, and local, so that the power to push through change is in the hands of everyone.
That is why we will get big money and corrupt donors out of politics altogether.
Reduce the number of MPs by 150.
Devolve power over the police and NHS to local communities.
Change the voting system to abolish safe seats and make every vote count.
And give constituents the right to sack corrupt MPs.
A new, fair start for all children at school.
A rebalanced, green economy.
And clean, open politics.
Four steps to real change.
Four steps to a fairer Britain.
The coming months are a crucial time for politics.
We will be using those months to focus on these four priorities.
Unveiling, step by step, more details.
How the changes will work in practice.
How they will affect people.
And why they are needed for a fairer Britain.
So I’m putting our cards on the table.
David Cameron and Gordon Brown are playing the politics of the airbrush and the focus group.
One doesn’t know what he believes. The other doesn’t know what to do with the power he clings to so desperately.
I know what I believe.
I am clear about the real changes a new Government must bring about.
I believe the country wants something different.
The Liberal Democrats are different.
We offer credibility where it’s needed.
And hope for our common future.