We need a Liberal crusader; Podium

From a speech by the Southwark MP and Liberal Democrat leadership candidate to a meeting of his party's councillors in Leeds
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The Independent Culture
IN MY life as a barrister before entering Parliament, from time to time I found myself in court across the floor from a couple of other young barristers. They were called Anthony Charles Lynton Blair and Cherie Booth. If elected as Liberal Democrat leader in a couple of weeks' time I feel that I shall, therefore, be quite ready to deal with Tony Blair across the Cabinet table in the Joint Cabinet Committee (JCC).

Though it's dangerous to count chickens before someone else has counted the ballot papers, it's clear how that first meeting of the JCC, under new Liberal Democrat management, should go. I want to use the JCC to take a scouring-pad to the constitutional commitments in Labour's manifesto that have become tarnished by neglect, lack of clarity or back-pedalling.

That means fair votes, freedom of information and Lords reform but it also means the Asylum Bill - a piece of legislation so illiberal that even right-wing Tories such as David Maclean oppose it. I will negotiate on those subjects as long and as hard as is necessary, for the remainder of this Parliament.

But beyond the constitutional agenda, and unlike my principal leadership rival, I will not even consider extending formal co-operation in this Parliament, whatever Tony Blair asks. I want speculation about closer links with Labour to end on the day I'm elected. Then we can get on with projecting Liberal Democrat messages, much more clearly.

The country must also be told that Liberal Democrats have changed and are changing as a party. The press has not yet fully picked up on these changes. It used to be said that Liberals were a party of the Celtic fringe. There was, after the war, some truth in that. But today the Liberal Democrats' most spectacular successes are in some of the urban centres that have for years been virtual Labour one-party statelets - such as Sheffield, Liverpool and Leicester. These kinds of area are also the places that are attracting the most new members.

Our new members in our burgeoning new urban (and suburban) local parties are also changing the look of the Liberal Democrats - and about time too. In the recent past we've been too middle-class and middle-aged as a party.

For me, this is a personal cause. It couldn't be closer to my heart.

In the early Eighties, I was offered a chance to become Liberal parliamentary candidate in Beaconsfield, but south London, containing some of the most deprived communities in Europe, needed a committed campaigner more. I've never made a secret of my strong Christian faith and that was part of the motivation. But what also motivated me was the desperate need for change.

Since being elected I've dealt with more than 15,000 separate constituency problems - some of them long-running and complex. One example: it is 10 years next month since the Marchioness was sunk but the battle goes on for justice for victims' families. Others of those 15,000 cases have been lower in profile, but just as important; reuniting a refugee family, obtaining benefits for a child with an amputated limb or getting a family rehoused from Dickensian conditions is at least as satisfying as any election victory.

If elected, I shall be the first of our party's leaders in living memory to represent an urban constituency. And certainly more urban than Tony Blair's Sedgefield or William Hague's Richmond seat. Hello! will not be knocking at my door to take photos of my lovely home; while I'm very proud of my house and little back garden, it stands right next to a big council estate and council housing office. Hopefully, having a party leader who deals every week at his constituency surgery with the consequences of benefit cuts and asylum "crack-downs" will mean that the Liberal Democrats change more rapidly into a party that will truly represent all of Britain.

My ambition for the Liberal Democrats is for us to change from the UK's third party (and fourth in Scotland and Wales) into a party moving rapidly towards government - as a progressive, independent force for social justice, everywhere in Britain.

Labour is increasingly becoming an Establishment party of the centre or centre left. Conservatives, like inflation and Cliff Richard, will always be with us. There is now a clear space again in British politics for the kind of crusade for social justice that was articulated by William Beveridge and RH Tawney, and, earlier, by Lloyd George in his "People's Budget" The Liberal Democrats can lead that crusade. We shall best succeed if a committed, crusading campaigner is now chosen to lead us.