2003 – Blair’s Leader’s Speech to Conference
This leader’s speech, at a time when Tony Blair was under enormous pressure over Iraq and from the schemings of Brown and those around him, is widely perceived to be one of his best. His ovation afterwards was three times as long as that which Brown had received.
1st October, 2003
BLAIR’S SPEECH TO THE LABOUR PARTY CONFERENCE
It’s my privilege to be the first Labour leader in 100 years to speak to our conference six and half years into Government.
We’ve never been here before. We’ve never come this far. Never governed for so long. Now with the prospect of a full third term.
But it’s a testing time. I now look my age. You feel yours.
I’ve had plenty of advice over what I should say in this speech. Some of it I have even asked for.
One suggestion was leading you all in chorus of “Always look on the bright side of life.”
So what do we do. Give up on it. Or get on with it? That’s the question.
Yes the cynics say, New Labour’s been a great electoral machine but you’ve done little with it.
I could recite you the statistics: The lowest inflation, mortgage rates, and unemployment for decades. The best ever school results, with over 60,000 more 11 year olds every year now reaching required standards in English and Maths. Cardiac deaths down 19 per cent since 1997, cancer deaths 9 per cent. Burglaries down 39 per cent.
But it’s not statistics that tell us what has changed, it’s people.
The lone parent I met, for years unemployed and unemployable. Now not just in work through the New Deal but winning promotion.
What mattered to her most? Not the money alone but the respect her child gained for her, seeing her work, grow in confidence, becoming a role model. One of two million people the New Deal has helped since 1997. That’s what this Labour government has done for Britain.
Or the children I met this month at a brand new academy in Thamesmead in one of the most deprived estates in the country.
In the past, children skipped their old school as often as attending. And 2 years ago, just three pupils, yes three out of an entire year of 114, got 5 good GCSE passes.
That failing school now empty. In its place a new £31m building, on time. Where teachers want to teach. Young people want to learn and parents want their children to go.
In one year attendance has now reached over 90% and GCSE results have soared.
The new school, its new attitude was summed up by one young student who told me she had been badgering her mum all week to buy an alarm-clock, as she was scared of sleeping in case she missed a single lesson. What better symbol of the opportunities we are giving our children.
Or the young boy on Merseyside I met having treatment for cancer – every parent’s nightmare – but whose parents can’t praise enough the care and treatment he’s received from the NHS.
No complaints from them. Just astonishment and admiration at the commitment and compassion of NHS staff and pride in our health service.
The money isn’t wasted. It’s not disappearing down some black hole. It’s there in bricks and mortar, in computers and machines.
In 1997, nearly half, yes half of the hospital buildings in the NHS were built before it came into existence, and now it is down to a quarter and falling fast. That’s the difference we are making in this country.
And most of all, we should be proud of every single teacher, doctor, nurse and police officer we have recruited.
Proud we have increased public service pay. It means we will recruit the thousands of extra staff we need but it also means we are beginning to reward properly the staff we already have for the superb job they do.
Add to that our constitutional change, devolution in Scotland and Wales, with nationalism now in disarray, self-government for London, the Freedom of Information Act, the Human Rights Act, the first open and transparent rules on Party funding.
And there is one piece of unfinished business which we will soon be completing. The abolition of the remaining hereditary peers. Never again in Britain will someone have the right to make laws which affect the lives of ordinary families solely because their ancestor was a duke, an earl or a viscount.
Add to that what we achieved for peace in Northern Ireland.
And let none of us forget, it is your Government that even in harsher economic times, is growing our aid budget, leading the way on cutting Third World debt, $70 billion already committed globally, and has just helped broker the deal that will give HIV/AIDS patients in Africa improved access to drugs.
In a host of ways, from a strengthening of the law against racial violence, to equal rights for same sex couples, setting up the Disability Rights Commission, action on domestic violence, changes that will never be reflected in an opinion poll, rarely hit a headline, rarely be heard outside those who benefit from it, in a world where a grain of sensation gets more attention than a mountain of genuine achievements – that’s the difference you have made to Britain.
So why is it so tough? Government’s tough. Fulfilling but tough. Opposition was easy.
All our MPs had to do was to go back to their constituencies and blame it on the Government. Some of them still do.
May 1997 was a unique moment. An abundance of expectation surrounded our arrival. A sense of hope beyond ordinary imagining. The people felt it. We felt it. Instead of reining in the expectation, we gave it free rein. It was natural, but born of inexperience.
We thought change was a matter of will.
Have the right programme, spend the right money and the job is done.
But experience has taught us: the job is never done.
If we expected bouquets every day, we should have stayed in Opposition. We shouldn’t want thanks. It’s a privilege to do the job, however tough.
And in Government, you expect things to happen but the things that happen are not the things you expect, at least not on 1 May 1997.
Iraq has divided the international community. It has divided the party, the country, families, friends.
I know many people are disappointed, hurt, angry.
I know many profoundly believe the action we took was wrong .
I do not at all disrespect anyone who disagrees with me.
I ask just one thing: attack my decision but at least understand why I took it and why I would take the same decision again.
Imagine you are PM. And you receive this intelligence. And not just about Iraq. But about the whole murky trade in WMD.
And one thing we know. Not from intelligence. But from historical fact. That Saddam’s regime has not just developed but used such weapons gassing thousands of his own people. And has lied about it consistently, concealing it for years even under the noses of the UN Inspectors.
And I see the terrorism and the trade in WMD growing.
And I look at Saddam’s country and I see its people in torment ground underfoot by his and his sons’ brutality and wickedness.
So what do I do? Say “I’ve got the intelligence but I’ve a hunch its wrong?” Leave Saddam in place but now with the world’s democracies humiliated and him emboldened?
You see, I believe the security threat of the 21st century is not countries waging conventional war. I believe that in today’s interdependent world the threat is chaos. It is fanaticism defeating reason.
Suppose the terrorists repeated September 11th or worse. Suppose they got hold of a chemical or biological or nuclear dirty bomb; and if they could, they would. What then? And if it is the threat of the 21st century, Britain should be in there helping confront it, not because we are America’s poodle, but because dealing with it will make Britain safer.
There was no easy choice. So whatever we each of us thought, let us agree on this.
We who started the war must finish the peace.
Those British soldiers who died are heroes.
We didn’t regret the fall of Milosovic, the removal of the Taliban or the liberation of Sierra Leone and whatever the disagreement Iraq is a better country without Saddam.
And why do I stay fighting to keep in there with America on the one hand and Europe on the other?
Because I know terrorism can’t be defeated unless America and Europe work together. And it’s not so much American unilateralism I fear
it’s walking away
when we need America there engaged.
Fighting to get world trade opened up
Fighting to give hope to Africa
Changing its position for the future of the world, on climate change. And staying with it in the Middle East, telling Israel and the Palestinians: don’t let the extremists decide the fate of the peace process, when the only hope is two states living side by side in peace.
And it’s not Britain being swallowed up in some European federal nightmare as if Britain wasn’t strong enough to hold its own, that I fear.
It’s Britain leaving the centre of Europe retreating to its margin at the very moment when the fate of Europe is being decided, 10 new nations and Britain’s leadership has never been more essential. That’s why apart from all the good economic reasons it is madness for Britain to give up the option of joining the Euro.
And I know both on terrorism and on Europe my views cause offence. But I can no more concede to parts of the left on the one than I can genuflect to the right over the other.
Because I believe both positions are vital in delivering justice in a modern world.
The original Conference title read “Fairness For All”. We changed it to “A Future Fair For All”.
Let us be absolutely clear about where we are today and why. Everything we have done has led up to this moment. To bring new hope and opportunity to the lives of all our citizens we always knew we would have to do something that Labour Governments have never succeeded in before – to renew in power, as we renewed to achieve power.
People ask me if I am surprised that things have got so tough. I say I am surprised it has taken so long.
I’ve been trying to say this to you for the best part of 10 years but never quite found the words. But now I’ve hit the rough patch, its time to try again.
Up to now there has been a ritual to Labour Governments, Euphoria on victory. Hard slog in Government. Tough times. Party accuses leadership of betrayal. Leadership accuses Party of ingratitude. Disillusion. Defeat. Long period of Tory Government before next outbreak of euphoria. We’ve been far better at defeating ourselves than the Tories have ever been.
Apart from 1974-79, which was fragile from the first, each Labour Government has been a spasmodic interval punctuating otherwise unbroken Conservative rule. For too many of our 100 years we have been a well-intentioned pressure group.
We fight injustice. We argue our causes. But our psychology has been that of people who know, deep down, someone else is the governing party and we are the ones championing the grievance.
So, after a time, after we have righted the most obvious wrongs of the Conservatives, we fold up. We return to our comfort zone. Then came New Labour.
From the outset, our opponents hated and feared us. They believe the Tories have a divine right to rule Britain and we are usurpers. They look at their own Party and feel contempt. And they hate us even more because they think we’re responsible. And in a sense we are. By occupying the centre ground, by modernising, by reaching out beyond our activists, we helped turn the Tories into a replica of what we used to be. A narrow base. Obsessed about the wrong things. Old fashioned. In retreat.
When the Tories lose an election now anywhere in the country, they say it’s not their natural territory. Like Scotland is not natural Tory territory. Like Wales is not natural Tory territory. Like the North of England is not natural Tory territory. Like the big cities are not natural Tory territory. Like Harwich, Hastings and Hove aren’t natural Tory territory.
If I was a Conservative I would be wondering where on earth is our natural territory. We always knew the Tories didn’t have a heart. Their problem now is they haven’t got a heartland.
No wonder they keep trying to reinvent themselves. From cuddly Conservatives to compassionate Conservatives to caring Conservatives. When are they going to realise it’s not the first word that’s the problem, it’s the second.
But one thing they have succeeded in. As they always do. Right from the beginning of New Labour they set up the eternal false choice of progressive politics. That in Government we either revert to the past; or we stand for nothing. That we are either incompetent or compromised. That if policy is modernised, belief is betrayed. And it plays to our own fears.
Yes, New Labour a clever piece of marketing, good at winning elections, but hollow where the heart should be. New Labour for me was never a departure from belief.
It is my belief. The just society in which each person is a full and equal citizen of our land, irrespective of birth, class, wealth, race or sex. Where through solidarity we build a society in which collective strength compensates for individual weakness.
Where privilege cannot just be handed down from generation to generation but success has to be earned on merit. Where self respect and respect for others is the hallmark of our communities and where the fight against poverty and oppression is Britain’s mission in the wider world.
These are my values and yours. They are the key. But the door they must unlock is the door to the future. Because values not put to work in the real world are mere words, lying idle, there to console us but not to change lives for the better.
When almost 10 years ago we ditched the old Clause IV, we didn’t do it just to ditch nationalisation. The new Clause IV was a fundamental restatement of ideology.
“by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone…. a community in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many not the few.”
From now on, we said: we stand for certain values.
The values are unchangeable. But the policies are open to change. We made the ends sacrosanct. We put the means up for discussion so that each time could find the right expression for values that are for all time.
In the first phase of our transformation, we took the millstones off our neck. We became a Party of economic competence, strong on defence, concerned on law and order. And we won power. And then in our first term we recovered the credibility to govern. We laid foundations.
But now, is where we show whether we have the mettle not just to be a longer or even a better Labour Government than those that went before us, but whether we usher in a political era where progressive politics is to the 21st century what conservative politics was to the 20th. I do not just want an historic third term. Our aim must be an historic realignment of the political forces shaping our country and the wider world.
Here we are poised, 6½ years in, with a fantastic opportunity, to use or to lose. Yes, this is a testing time. But it is a test not just of belief but of character. And the time is for renewal, not retreat.
A delegate said to me last night. “I know what you want really to say”, she said: “you want to say: I know what I’m doing. Just let me get on with it.” Then she said: “You do know what you are doing don’t you?” It’s a fair question.
I know the old top down approach won’t work any more. I know I can’t say “I am the leader, follow me”. Not that that was your strong point anyway.
Over the coming months, I want our Party to begin a new discussion with the people of Britain. Across major policy areas the Government will publish a prospectus, discussing the progress we have made and the challenges our country still faces. We should have the confidence to open up the debate, be honest about the challenges, lay out the real choices.
But this must not just be a discussion between us. Because if we want a Government in touch with the Party, we must have a Party in touch with the people.
And so let us make this the biggest policy consultation ever to have taken place in this country. The Ministers from me down, our MPs out in every constituency hosting discussions that engage with the whole community.
So, when we begin our manifesto process, when the policy forum draws our thinking together, I want it to address the big questions, engage with ordinary people’s hopes and fears. A progressive, imaginative, vibrant public debate about how we together build a future fair for all.
Not the daily diet of froth; not turning serious politics into soap opera, debasing it, turning it into an endless who knew what, when, as if politicians simply competed on villainy. The British people deserve better from the politicians and with respect, from parts of the media too. But real politics about real people.
And in the programme we set out, let our idealism be undimmed, but let us show what experience has taught it. What have we learnt?
That from Bank of England independence, to primary school standards, from street crime to PFI hospital building, no change without controversy, no progress without change, no prospect of social justice without reform. We’re proud of economic stability. 1½ million more jobs since 1997.
A hundred years ago we campaigned for a minimum wage. Tomorrow our minimum wage, the one we introduced in the teeth of Tory opposition is going up again – to £4.50. That means that since its introduction this Labour government has increased the earnings of the lowest pay workers, by over £1,500 a year. Whilst the Tories said it would cost millions of jobs, we can say today that Britain’s historic minimum wage is here to stay and it comes with the best record on jobs for 30 years.
But we know it’s not enough, not in the economy of the future. The fight for a fair future must begin with our number one priority education. At every age, at every stage, education is the surest guarantee of a fair future. At every age and every stage we are breaking down the barriers that hold people back.
At birth: a year’s maternity leave, paid paternity leave for the first time and now a new trust fund for every child; their own stake in the future.
For toddlers, childcare places, nursery places, child tax credits, and Sure Start giving mothers the confidence and support they need.
At primary school the basics, so now our children are in the top three in the world for reading. At secondary school, personalised learning for every child in new specialist schools and City Academies. For teenagers, grants to stay on at school, modern apprenticeships, not a thing of the past but a part of the future.
And then throughout adult life, new opportunities through Learn Direct to learn more – a language, new skills – every individual the chance to fulfil their potential. At every age, at every stage, opening opportunity not for a privileged few but for all.
And we need a modern industrial base, doubling investment in science, leading Europe in the biosciences and technology, more high tech spins off from universities than ever before – not just world beating British ideas but world beating products, British profits, British jobs. And yes new manufacturing jobs – high skills, high tech, exactly the kind of jobs we need for the future.
In the economy of the 21st, knowledge, human capital, is the future and fairness demands it is open to all.
But a big challenge faces us. As our children are helped at every stage to learn – we are going further than any country in Europe in turning higher education from a privilege for the few to a right for the many. But how do we finance education through life and also get more children into university education that competes with the best in the world?
To pretend it will all come from the taxpayer is dishonest. It won’t and it wouldn’t be fair if it did.
And yes the Tories have an alternative to student fees. To cut money going to universities by cutting student numbers. 100,000 fewer students. Is that fair? Who do you think will be the students cut? Their children? And when the universities need more money, do you think they’ll raise taxes? No, they’ll cut numbers again, when our very economic future depends on us developing people’s potential not squandering it.
And the Lib Dems? They say they will spend more and it will all come out of raising the top rate of tax to 50 per cent. Except that extra university funding is not all that’s to come from the top rate taxpayer. They have commitments to spend more on forty different items running into billions of pounds.
All this from the top rate taxpayer. We used to have that policy. Remember squeezing the rich ’til the pips squeaked? Except in the end, it wasn’t only the rich that were squeezed; and it wasn’t the pips that squeaked, it was us.
We can be proud of the new money in our schools and health service, proud that this year, last year and next year spending on health and education is rising faster here than in any other major country. 55,000 more nurses. 25,000 more teachers. 80,000 more classroom assistants. Tremendous.
But in the future how can it be fair when for all the advances we have made, a wealthy pensioner waiting on a consultant’s list for her hip operation can go to the same consultant and get it done next week if she is able to pay, but a poor pensioner cannot?
And how is it fair that well off parents, for all our improvements, who can’t get their child into a decent secondary school, can choose to buy a good education but poor parents can’t? Choice has always been there for the well off. Excellence has always been at the service of the wealthy.
What is unfair is not the right to choose, not the pursuit of excellence but where that choice and that excellence depends on your wealth not your need.
Take the case of an elderly woman in the north west, who looked after her dying husband despite her ill-health. After his death, she agreed to have the serious heart operation she needed.
But though she was listed as urgent, she was placed on a year-long waiting list. Once she would have had no choice. Now she did. Because of our policies, she was offered the chance to travel to get her heart operation done much more quickly. She jumped at it. After the operation, she said: “I’d go to the ends of the earth to get my health back. It saved me six months of anxiety. Really I feel it saved my life”.
Choice for her is not a betrayal of our principles. It is our principles.
And what progress it was in the 1960s when the comprehensive ended the division of children into successes and failures age 11. What a breakthrough in 1948 when the NHS gave people, who used to scrimp and save and fret to pay, care free at the point of use.
But progress in the 21st century demands more, much more. Teaching tailored to each child’s ability.
A Health Service that brings the benefits of new genetic knowledge to everyone, not a lottery. The patient not at the convenience of the system but the system at the convenience of the patient. And because the world changes we have to change. No longer “one size fits all”. Recognising that in the 21st century you can’t run a personalised service by remote control.
That’s the reason for change. Not to level down but to level up. Not to privatise but to revitalise a public service we all depend on.
I don’t want the middle class fighting to get out of the state system. I want them fighting to get into it but on equal terms with working class patients and children. That’s what the founders of socialism dreamt of.
And when I read a resolution saying Foundation Hospitals are opposed by an alliance of the BMA and the House of Lords, and yes Tories and Lib Dems too, what are we: a progressive party? If we had listened to that alliance, we would never have had an NHS in the first place.
And of course the criminal justice system with its rules and procedures was a vital step of progress when poor people were without representation unjustly convicted by corners cut. But today in Britain in the 21st century it is not the innocent being convicted. It’s too many of the guilty going free. Too many victims of crime and always the poorest who are on the front line.
And its great we’ve made a start on reform with record numbers of police officers. But I tell you. We will not hit organised crime until we treat them with the ruthlessness they treat us. We won’t tackle crime if we bail drug abusers back on the streets without treatment.
And we cannot say we live in a just society, if we do not put an end to the anti-social behaviour, the disrespect, the conduct which we wouldn’t tolerate from our own children and shouldn’t have to tolerate from someone else’s.
Responsibility and opportunity.
That’s why we are investing in our poorest communities. And it’s the whole basis of tax credits. If you work, we will help you with the working tax credit. If you are bringing up kids we will support you with child benefit and child tax credit. If you save, we will help you with pension credit that will boost the incomes of half of Britain’s pensioners by an average of £400 a year – the biggest advance in combating poverty in old age in a generation but in the future given to those that need it most.
And fairness in a future where millions are on the move. Britain should always be open to refugees. We can be proud of the part immigration has played in this country. But economic migrants should come in through a proper immigration process.
Changing the law on asylum is the only fair way of helping the genuinely persecuted – and its best defence against racism gaining ground. We have cut asylum applications by a half. But we must go further. We should cut back the ludicrously complicated appeal process, de-rail the gravy train of legal aid, fast-track those from democratic countries, and remove those who fail in their claims without further judicial interference.
And in a world of mass migration, with cheaper air travel, and all the problems of fraud, it makes sense to ask whether now in the early 21st century identity cards are no longer an affront to civil liberties but may be the way of protecting them. These are some of the challenges.
What’s fair when we want not a basic but a good standard of life in retirement that is bound to last longer than ever before. What’s fair when the users of universal services want to be treated not as grateful welfare recipients but demanding 21st century consumers.
What’s fair for the mother who a generation ago would have expected to stay at home but now wants the chance to work flexibly. What’s fair in a world in which, in a strong economy, rail and tube are used so much more than in 1997, where we desperately need a 21st century transport system and cannot fairly fund it all from the taxpayer.
What’s fair in a world where the insecurities multiply so fast and the wheels of government turn so slow.
Where we have to pick our way to sanity through a cacophony of pressure and hassle which are not the product of any one moment in time but of the times in which we live. Fairness remade. A Britain without poverty. First class public services. Community renewed. A progressive future within our grasp. The dreams of generations who came to conferences like this becoming real, hopes that were once utopian becoming everyday.
The reason I bang the drum for change is I get so angry that it takes so long, restless at how much there is to do. I want us to go faster, further.
I think of the people I meet. Holly in Southampton. Teenage mum. Now through Sure Start with childcare. Given help to study so she can become a midwife so she can work in the NHS so another mother can benefit. Why does it take so long for us to realise when we invest in people like her, it’s not a cost, it’s an investment in our future?
Or the NHS manager in Newcastle, 30 years working in the NHS, telling me only in the last three has he done anything other than managing decline or the Chief Police Officer telling me after a lifetime in the service, that it was only with the recent legislation on crime he felt Government understood.
And, I stick at it, because I know what’s there if we stumble. Not the Government of some hallucination, where no tough decisions have to be taken, the money grows on trees, the Ministers all hold hands and sing Kum-bay-ah, also known as the Lib Dems – what’s round the corner is the old Tory days.
It’s not that long ago that we’ve all forgotten, is it?
the 3m unemployed
the two recessions
the negative equity
the double figure inflation
the 15% interest rates
the cuts in schools and hospitals
the privatising of the railways.
And when we get to the next election, believe me. We won’t be fighting for votes with the hard left. We’ll be fighting the hard right. The Tories.
And they’ll fight us on immigration, on Europe and above all on tax. And they’ll say: you put the money in and nothing happened.
That’s why they run down the NHS.
Because they know if we can change our state schools and our NHS for the better, then they’re back where they’ve never been in 100 years ’til now, a Party of opposition and not even a good one at that.
When do Tories succeed? They succeed when people believe politics can’t change lives. But we know it can because we see in the faces of the New Dealer and the pupils and the patients and the poorest of our world that politics can make a difference.
I remember when our journey to Government began. Here in this Hall in 1985, with Neil Kinnock, here with us today. And, of course today it seems, absurd, doesn’t it? Militant, Arthur, all that nonsense.
But I tell you. At the time, I remember up there, where the MPs used to be penned in, getting to my feet in the middle of his speech, the Hall split asunder, my heart pounding, wondering if this was the beginning or the end.
And what I learnt that day was not about the far left. It was about leadership. Get rid of the false choice: principles or no principles. Replace it with the true choice. Forward or back
I can only go one way. I’ve not got a reverse gear. The time to trust a politician most is not when they’re taking the easy option. Any politician can do the popular things. I know, I used to do a few of them.
I know it’s hard for people to keep faith.
Some of the people may have a different take on me. But I have the same take on them. I trust their decency. I trust their innate good sense. I know I am the same person I always was, older, tougher, more experienced, but basically the same person believing the same things. I’ve never led this Party by calculation. Policy you calculate Leadership comes by instinct. I believe the British people will forgive a government mistakes; will put the media onslaught in more perspective than we think; but what they won’t forgive is cowardice in the face of a challenge. The answer to any of these challenges is not easy.
During the past months on Iraq, I have received letter from parents whose sons have died as soldiers. One believing their son had died in vain and hating me for my decision.
Another, a beautiful letter, said they thought Iraq was the right thing to do and though their son was dead, whom they loved dearly, they still thought it was right.
And don’t believe anyone who tells you when they receive letters like that they don’t suffer any doubt.
All you can do in a modern world, so confusing with its opportunities and its hazards, is to decide what is the right way and try to walk in it.
It’s not being out of touch. After 6 years, more battered without but stronger within. It’s the only leadership I can offer.
And it’s the only type of leadership worth having. The purpose: to rebuild the public realm, to discover amongst all the modern pressures, the virtues of community, of tolerance, of decency, of respect. To bring to the self interested consumer age, the value of solidarity. Not to cease to want the best for oneself but to wish it for all.
To build a country not just proud of their own achievements, but proud of what we can do together.
Proud not just of how they get and spend but what we in friendship with each other can do for each other.
This is our challenge.
To stride forward where we have always previously stumbled. To renew in government. Steadfast in our values. Radical in our methods. Open in our politics.
If we faint in the day of adversity, our strength is small.
And ours isn’t. We have the strength, the maturity, now the experience to do it.
So let it be done.
This copy of the speech was posted on the Labour Party web site.