At this time of the year, the papers are traditionally filled with reviews of the twelve months just passed and predictions for the year to come. Liberal Democrats can justifiably feel proud of our achievements in 1997, and look forward to bigger and better things in 1998.
As 1997 began, we were watching the awesome spectacle of the Tory party disintegrating. They had given up running the country, and were busy sharpening their knives for the leadership contest they knew was on its way. Over the next few months we had to endure the discordant swan song of a discredited, sleaze-ridden, arrogant administration.
The May General Election saw the tired Tories put out of their misery at last, as the country voted decisively for a new start. The Liberal Democrats did better than we had dared to hope, winning more seats than at any election since the days of Lloyd George. The biggest bonus for us locally was winning Colchester, with Bob Russell becoming Essex’ first ever Liberal Democrat MP. Land’s End is now in a Lib Dem constituency – and so is John O’Groats. We have 46 MPs throughout the United Kingdom, including Scotland and Wales where the Tories have none. (Liberal Democrats, incidentally, run many more local councils than the Conservatives.)
Almost immediately the new government’s carefully knitted sweater began to unravel. 17 new taxes were introduced in their first budget, including a raid on our pension funds. This was followed by the introduction of tuition fees for students, the abandonment of their manifesto pledges on fox-hunting and cigarette advertising, and the ongoing saga of the Paymaster-General’s £12 million off-shore tax-avoidance scheme. (Worse was to come in December.)
Winning Winchester again was the highlight of November for the Liberal Democrats; turning a majority of 2 into one of more than 21,000 was a magnificent result, and underlined the extent to which the Tories have been rejected by their previous supporters. With a swing like that, Rayleigh could have a Liberal Democrat MP as well! Several local Liberal Democrats went down to help at Winchester, and it was fascinating to talk to the voters and hear their views. I was particularly interested to hear former Labour supporters’ comments on the government they had voted for. Their practically unanimous opinion was that they felt at best let down, at worst betrayed by a government they had such high hopes of in May.
December’s most amazing sight was the government’s shameful assault on single parents, which led to the first significant revolt by Tony Blair’s backbench MPs. Opposition to the cuts was led as usual by the Liberal Democrats. With the Tory party still in disarray, we are providing consistent, coherent criticism of a government which has rapidly lost its shine. Swept to power by a tidal wave of disenchantment with the Tories, Tony Blair’s government should have benefited from a huge fund of goodwill. But this goodwill has been frittered away as Labour has ignored the needs of the least well-off in our society, refusing to fund the NHS adequately, starving schools of funds, reducing the number of police on the beat.
“We must stick to Tory spending plans,” is the mantra chanted by government ministers whenever the possibility of spending more on public services is suggested. The Tory government was once memorably caricatured as being ‘in office, but not in power’. And now, bizarre though it may seem, they are in power though no longer in office. Ruling from beyond the grave? Definitely a case for Mulder and Scully!
December also saw the local government settlement – and what a poor Christmas present that turned out to be for Rochford. The amount we are allowed to spend this year has been slashed by £241,000 – a cut of 4%, which will mean a huge tax hike of £13.00 for a band D property. One of the first things the new government did was to confirm capping on Oxfordshire, Somerset and other capped councils. Just like the Tories, they don’t trust local people to run their own affairs, preferring to control spending centrally from Westminster.
Next year, we will continue to fight for a fair deal for local people. We will be defending the disabled against the cuts the government is considering. We are likely to be the only major party fighting for extra funds for our schools, hospitals and police forces.
In the meantime, may I wish you all a happy Christmas, with best wishes for 1998.