My priority is to speak for the poor and the powerless

We must be the social justice party, otherwise there will be a gaping hole in British politics
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The Independent Culture
YESTERDAY, MY life in politics entered a new phase. Leading the Liberal Democrats is a task for which I am eager. It is also one for which I feel well prepared. Having entered the Commons in 1983, I served my apprenticeship in some of the worst of times in modern British politics. The 1980s saw civic Britain torn apart by rampant monetarism, while the progressive forces could only stand by and watch - too extreme in the case of Labour, and never quite credible enough in the case of the Alliance.

But now, the Liberal Democrats are in a position to make a real difference. In fact we have already had a dramatic affect on the post-1997 political agenda. I would pick out devolution for Scotland and Wales as a triumph. We have argued the case for so long - and harried and pushed Labour more recently - that I know Liberal Democrats can justifiably take considerable credit.

But there is still much, very much, that is wrong with Britain. I have highlighted my main concerns throughout the leadership campaign in speeches, newspaper articles, and my manifesto.

What are my priorities? My first is that the party should be one that speaks for the poor, the powerless and the dispossessed.

New Labour does not place their concerns at the heart of its agenda. We must be the social justice party, for otherwise there will be a gaping hole in British politics.

Under my leadership, the Liberal Democrats will also be an environmental party. We are regularly praised by the environmental movement for our policies, but when do we ever tell the British public about them? Not nearly enough in my view. Expect to hear much more from me in the years to come.

There are two other areas of personal priority. One is the unfinished constitutional revolution that Labour has begun but does not yet fully understand. I include in this the question of Europe, where Labour has been far too wary of the Eurosceptics, though I do welcome the Prime Minister's words of welcome to the Clarke-Heseltine wing of the Conservative Party. In fact, I made similar comments myself a few weeks before Mr Blair's recent pronouncement.

But the core of the constitutional agenda is electoral reform. Why, when they have conceded fair votes for local government in a Scottish context, and when we already have PR for local councils in Northern Ireland, will Labour not give the people of England and Wales the genuinely representative local bodies that PR would bring? And when will there be fair votes for Westminster? Labour has accepted that PR creates better government in many parts of Britain. They must follow their logic and bring fair votes, and better government, to the UK Parliament.

My final personal priority is that I want to make the Liberal Democrats a serious party of power at every level of government. I want us to be an independent party of progressive conscience and reform. But I am in politics to make my vision count. I want our policies to be implemented nationally.

This means a twin-track approach to the present Government. We should work with Labour on the current basis, so that we can push them hard on constitutional reform. This process can mean a great deal of co-operation. Make no mistake of that. There is work to be done on fair votes, Freedom of Information, the House of Lords, and British entry to the euro.

But the other track we must pursue is to recognise that we do have clear differences with Labour. If we are to be an alternative government, we must not let up criticism of Labour where it fails to deliver, especially on the issues of most importance to the public - health and education.

These then are the core issues of my personal agenda: social justice, the environment, constitutional reform, and a serious approach to the business of government. There is one theme that ties those issues together. It is the quality of our democracy - the ways we get people involved, and the sophistication of the debates that we have. I entered the House of Commons at a time when Thatcherism was tearing civic Britain apart. Great damage was done by the "no such thing as, society" mindset. None of us in politics have ever quite reversed it.

Party political membership is down to record lows. Voter participation in elections is similarly dreadful. Many people have turned inwards - the result of 18 years of a government that told people to think of themselves first, and to worry about others much later, if at all.

What can we do? It will be no surprise to hear a Liberal Democrat say that we have to continue reforming our constitution and our voting system so that people have more power over government - so that it is closer to them, and more representative.

But there is much more. During the leadership campaign, I spoke of the need to reconnect with Britain. We need to persuade people that politics is relevant to their lives, and show them that decisions made by politicians affect their lives. We need to show the people who feel excluded through poverty that politics is important. This is partly about language and political discourse. A few weeks ago, I outlined my idea of a Social Justice Audit, carried out on all government policies, by government in partnership with independent organisations. I believe it would make the British people realise exactly how bad the divisions in Britain are, and how government policies often worsen them. It would change political discourse so that debates could be more focused on the war on want that Britain needs to wage. It could go far to reuniting our society.

I am also passionate that we need to persuade the better off that a cohesive society is in everyone's interest. We desperately need a serious debate on the funding of public services. Those who are financially comfortable need to realise that they have a vested interest in effective local community provision because the alternative is greater social division and greater personal overheads.

The mission for all in politics in the years to come is to save Britain's democracy. Government must be made relevant to the people it serves. It must involve them. It must listen to them. It must inspire and excite them. This is the cause I intend to lead.