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1994 - Mr Major’s Speech to the Conservative Local Government Conference

Below is the text of Mr Major’s speech to the Conservative Local Government Conference on 26th February 1994.


PRIME MINISTER:

"Making Councils Work for You"

Making Councils Work for You is the theme of this year's Conference. In those five words is the very essence of local government.

It is something Conservative councils have always sought to do. It was what I tried to do here in Lambeth - what is it now, a quarter of a century ago.

Present today will be people here who have served in local government all that time. That's something to be proud of: a record of service that many have reason to be grateful for.

There's one lesson I learned in local government. Politics is about people. About their lives. That is why our policies are based on individual choice, individual opportunity, individual responsibility.

That is the message we need to carry. Street to street, house to house, face to face. Tell it to people on the doorstep. After all, it's their communities, their choices, their freedoms, their children, their future.

So tell me tell it how it is - without the gloss of intermediary comment. That's the way to hammer home our message and make sure it is received.

In this we have an advantage. Our strength comes from the ground up. More than any other Party, our message is carried to the country by our local supporters, local councillors, local candidates and local party workers.

This year, many of you will be fighting in the local elections. We're going to have to fight hard to win. Mid term elections are never easy.

But I'll tell you one thing. We're not going to win if we stay on the back foot. We must be positive. We must be confident. We must be united.

THE ECONOMY

And, Mr Chairman, we have reason to be. These elections will take place against an economic background that seemed impossible a year ago.

Unemployment is falling. Growth faster than predicted. Business confidence rising. Exports up. Retail sales on the up. And British industry going from strength to strength.

We can't expect our opponents to say all this. Indeed, we can be pretty sure they won't.

So we must say it. And when we've said it - say it again, and again, and again.

Make sure everyone notices it. Don't let the good changes that are taking place be hidden. Gloves off. Punch the good news home. Build up the confidence that will build up our prosperity.

When were interest rates last this low? 16 years ago. When was inflation last this low for so long? 25 years ago.

When were mortgage rates last this low? 25 years ago.

When was the number of strikes last this low? Over a century ago.

When did we last have such good news on all these fronts together? Not in my lifetime. Not in anyone's.

I don't intend to see the Conservative Party on the defensive.

What we've done is right for the country.

And what we'll deliver is good for the country.

So help spread that message wherever you are.

For the last two years politics has all pointed in one direction. The issue has been the recession. No-one takes our opponents seriously. No-one pays much attention to what they say. They've had a free ride. They've talked complete drivel - and got away with it.

But that won't last. In due course people will notice the vacuum that is their policy. While we've been working to put Britain back on its feet, their only concern has been to put the boot into Britain.

So - remember. While your main job is to explain our policies, just - occasionally - take a moment out to expose theirs.

TAX

Meanwhile, let us take all the key issues head on. Tax - for a start. Let me come straight out about where we stand on tax. All our instincts are to get tax down. There's no other Party in British politics that can say that.

Yes - taxes are rising in April. Why? Because tax income fell during the recession. And because public spending had to rise.

Yes, but why did public spending have to rise? Mainly to help those people who were vulnerable during the recession - a recession we can now see was not - as advertised then - a British phenomenon, but one that has spread right across Europe and beyond.

It was right to help people during that recession. We could not have done otherwise. No Conservative Government could turn its back on those most in need. Nor did we.

That's mainly why spending went up. But we're through recession now - the first nation in Europe to be able to say that. Now we need to rebuild income and control spending. This country has been through many sacrifices to get to this position. We are not going to throw it away now.

The first task of any responsible Government must be to balance the books. And, even though we've now cut spending, this still means that taxes have had to go up.

We didn't put them up because we wanted to. We did it because we had to. What we need now is to build a recovery that lasts. That is what responsible government is all about.

But there's something else you can tell them on the doorsteps. We remain by instinct a tax-cutting Party -the only tax-cutting Party. And when it is possible to cut taxes again, we will.

So don't just defend our record. Remind people of this.... Every time the Conservatives have voted for lower taxes, Labour have voted for higher ones. And the Liberals have voted with them.

Every time the Conservatives have voted for lower public spending, Labour have voted to spend more. And the Liberals have voted with them.

And when did Labour or Liberals call for spending cuts? You're right - never. They called for more spending - as they always do.

Nor do they stop at high tax and high spending in Britain; they want high tax and high spending from a high and mighty Brussels too. Yes - we're in Europe. Because that's where our interests lie. But not the Europe Labour and Liberals want.

Just look at Labour's plans for Europe. Sheer madness.

Higher taxes on business. Extra burdens on business through the Social Chapter. Extra costs on business through a 35 hour week.

In the European Parliament Labour have even voted for taxes on investment income - the old axe on savings and pensions. How extraordinary to propose a tax surcharge on savings income, just when interest rates are low. What damage that would do to the elderly and the prudent. The politics of envy are alive and well - and living in Labour policies.

And if that's not enough, they and their Socialist friends actually want to double the money that Europe spends. Double your money. Double the Community budget? That means doubling our net contribution.

Hands up all those who want to double our net contributions to Brussels? No hands up? - the observer from the Liberal Party must have slipped out to lunch.

How does that square with keeping your tax bills down? It doesn't, does it? You can't give more money to Europe unless you take more tax at home.

In Whitehall, in Brussels and council chamber, too - it's taxes, taxes everywhere. Remind the people - with every Labour promise, the taxing meter clicks upward.

That's the key difference between the Parties. And that's the lack of difference between our opponents. Labour and the Liberals: two halves of the same tax demand.

LOCAL GOVERNMENT REVIEW

Mr Chairman, when I spoke to you last year, I said I wanted to produce an enduring structure for local government. I meant it. I come from local government. I have an affection for it. I want it to be successful.

And it's always been my belief that structures will only endure if they reflect the traditional loyalties and identities of local people.

Local government is at its best when people know what its responsibilities are and who is responsible. When they know to whom they should look for help on particular issues.

At the moment in many places that isn't very clear. There are blurred responsibilities. People often don't know who to turn to. There's scope for better integration of services and savings from improved efficiency. Achieving that would not only be good for the structure of local government, it would be good for its prestige.

In many cases unitary authorities will deliver advantages. Where that is so I believe we should have them. But the argument for unitary authorities may not be so strong everywhere. Where that is so, we have made it clear that we will not change for change's sake. There is no national blueprint.

And I promise you this. All through this process government's doors will be open. John Gummer and David Curry will take your views fully into account before coming to any final decisions.

We share a common objective of which this process is only a small part. To get back to the time when the big figures of local government were invariably big figures on the national stage as well.

I want to see that happen again. You play a vital part in making your communities better places. I want your work to be recognised and your voice to be heard.

IMPORTANCE OF LOCAL DECISIONS

Mr Chairman, debates on structure will no doubt continue. But immediately ahead of us lie elections which will decide what matters far more: who runs the council.

We're realists. We know many people will vote on national as well as on local issues. That is why good news on the economy matters so much.

But don't think that what you do isn't noticed. It is. Or doesn't count. It does. Because most people's day to day lives are affected by local government just as much as central.

Many problems are best solved locally. Sorted out by thousands upon thousands of decisions and actions taken at council level. And, whatever the local problem is, I know one thing for sure. It'll be tackled best, if it is tackled by Conservative councillors.

On almost all the key issues of local government, there are sharp differences between the parties. And time and time again it is the Conservatives who are most in tune with the people.

EDUCATION

Take education. We can all agree it's vital. Words are cheap. But only we Conservatives have produced a clear policy for the future. And we have done it against the flat opposition of the other parties, national and local.

Children have only one chance. If schools fail to teach the basic skills, then pupils lose the opportunity to make the most of their lives.

Every child needs the basic equipment for success in life. The three Rs do matter. And so too does confident command of standard English. If you can't write a clear application, you may never even get an interview for the job you want.

We Conservatives have a clear strategy for a better future.

We've given parents the right to choose which school they want their child to go to.

We've brought in a new National curriculum.

We've insisted on testing - checking progress in every school.

We're taking on those trendy theorists who have done so much damage in teacher training.

We're giving more power to the schools.

We're giving parents and public more information about our schools than ever before. School reports, full prospectuses, truancy records and performance tables.

And who is it that opposes us - on all these critical commonsense policies? Why, Labour, of course.

They are the abominable no-men of education. They think they know better. So they say "no" to choice in education, "no" to information about how our children are doing in school, and "no" to more say for parents.

How completely, how absurdly, time and time and time again the Labour Party has misjudged the mood of the people of this country. Not just in the council chambers - but in the Shadow Cabinet, too.

Hundreds of thousands of parents have voted for Grant-Maintained schools - but John Smith and co still want to scrap them.

Millions of parents want to see our school performance tables - but Labour still want to scrap them.

Assisted places for poor children? They'll scrap them, too. Their attitude is all so negative and out of date.

And this week Labour have even revived their old blind prejudice against independent schools. They are talking of ending charitable status. What hope for our children's future, when Labour's spokesmen trek back into a discredited past?

Mr Chairman, there seems no attitude on education so vindictive that Labour won't back it.

In some Labour-run authorities, young children in CTCs have been picked on and stopped from playing music or team games with children from other schools.

I don't know about you - but I don't think you can sink much lower than that. What a spiteful policy. It is educational apartheid, and it should stop - now.

Team sports are vital. They are part of childhood. And they are part of life. I am determined to see them played far more in our schools. And I don't want to see classroom wars or perverted political ideology stand in the way.

LAW AND ORDER

Mr Chairman, as I go round the country one subject resonates more clearly than any other - concern about crime. This year in Parliament, we have the most comprehensive legislation for years to crack down on crime. To give the courts and the police the powers they need.

But all of you can help us - and I'll tell you how. For no-one should ever think that local councils can't help in the fight against crime. The war on drugs and the war on crime involve us all. And you in your councils can play a big part in winning that war.

Here's an example. I recently visited a Conservative council in London. Ealing. I found they were leading the way in new projects for fighting crime on the streets.

You didn't need a degree in criminology to see the sense of what they were doing. It was simple practical action. Just fitting gates in the alleyways of estates. In just one year it cut domestic burglaries by a third.

Not expensive. Not difficult. Just plain common or garden sense. Back to basics you might say.

And that's just one of many things councils should do.

You can set up neighbourhood watch schemes.

Work with the police and local businesses under our Safer Cities programme.

And don't underestimate what better planning can do. To help you and to pull threads together we're publishing new guidance today on planning that will help councils cut out crime.

Better lighting, entry phones in tower blocks, better street design. Simple things like these can make life more difficult for the mugger, the burglar and the ram raider.

So, too, could more closed circuit cameras in City centres. We're out to stop the criminal - and the best way to do that is to spot him before he strikes. Closed circuit cameras have proved they can work. So we need more of them wherever crime is high.

Yes, no doubt we will hear some protests about a threat to civil liberties. Well, I have no sympathy for so-called liberties of that kind. The one liberty that concerns me is the liberty of people to go out in the streets without fear and to know that they and their property are safe.

Anything that helps them and hinders the criminal is fine by me.

PARTY DIFFERENCES

Mr Chairman, in ten weeks time people will be voting up and down the country on what council will run their area in the years ahead. The choice they face couldn't be clearer.

What was it Jack Straw said the other day about Labour councils? He said he was "proud of what Labour councils have achieved". Well, if he is, he must be easily satisfied. He went on to say, "The facts speak for themselves."

Yes, they do. But I wonder if he realises what they say.

Seven out of the ten authorities with the highest Council tax arrears? Labour.

Eight out of ten with the worst rent arrears? Labour.

Nine out of ten with the worst exam results? Labour.

Ten out of ten with the highest council taxes? Labour.

"The facts speak for themselves". They do indeed. And what they tell you is to vote Conservative - unless you want a council that puts up your taxes because it doesn't collect the rents, and doesn't teach your children.

Thanks Jack for reminding us. Although I have a feeling that's not what you wanted us to hear.

And since I'm in the mood to let facts speak for themselves, here are a few more that positively scream out.

Who runs the ten councils with the highest debts? Yes. Labour.

And did you know those ten councils collectively have borrowed so much money that the latest figures show they owe more than Nicaragua?

And if you think that's unfair because there are ten councils and only one Nicaragua, let me tell you what else those figures show.

After ten years of Socialism, Birmingham's debt is almost three times the size of Albania's. And it took Albania forty years of communism to build up her debt.

And in case you think that's a freak, then Hackney owes more than Haiti. Hackney's Labour.

Camden owes more than Chad. And Camden? Labour.

And Sheffield owes more than the Seychelles. Sheffield - since we're talking about elections today, that brings back some happy memories. Perhaps Labour would like another rally there - it might even be worth us paying.

Week after week John Smith talks about competence in government. Well, that's fine. But he should take a close look at incompetence in Labour local government instead.

No wonder he calls for the cancellation of Third World debt. He thinks he might need the IMF to bail out third-rate Labour councils instead.

LIBERALS

Before we leave the third-rate, let's spare a word for the fourth-rate also. Here's one last question about council debt. Who runs the council with the eleventh largest debt? No, not Labour. Yes, you guessed it. The Liberal Democrats.

Wherever Labour leads, the Liberals follow, tails wagging, right at their heels.

We'll confront Labour head-on. But don't let's forget the Liberal threat.

Do you remember the Liberal posturing at the last Election? All that fuss about PR? Paddy's patent remedy. People soon saw through that piece of quackery.

The Liberals said PR was the key to a new style of politics. And that was half true at least. Because it was a key alright - a Liberal key to a Labour Britain.

And events have proved that. Just look at what's happened up and down the country. Wherever people have voted Liberal in protest, the Liberals have used that key to open the Town Hall door for Labour.

In Berkshire, Essex, Hereford, Lincolnshire, Shropshire, Suffolk and Kent, what do we see? Liberals touching their cap and opening the door for Labour. Lib-Lab pacts putting up council taxes and snuffing out common sense.

I hope everyone remembers that this May.

There's only one way to vote Tory. But there are two ways to vote Labour.

A hung council is a swung council. And it always swings to the Left.

The only consistent policy the Liberals have is to let in Labour wherever they can. Backstairs deals. Selling their principles for a few committee chairmanships.

Three chairs for the Libs - and, hey presto, you have a Labour council.

CONCLUSION

Mr Chairman, I've spelt out for you today some of the challenges we face. But also the opportunities - and today we have opportunities better than we've had for years to take our country forward.

At this conference we have set out our shared beliefs. And told the world how strongly we hold them. Our commitments on education and crime strike a chord in every household in this country.

We in this Party are not in politics to advance a narrow political ideology. We are there to do what we can for the people we serve.

Over the last two years, I admit, we've taken a fair amount of stick. But now is the time to give some back.

We've been on the defensive. But now is the time to go on the attack.

It will take time before our policies work through. Time before all their benefits are seen.

But one thing I do know. We won't convince anyone if we stay at home indoors. In all the years of service on your councils, in all your actions, you have helped to build the reputation of this Party.

Now go out and sell it. You deserve to win. Make sure you do.

So get on your coat. Get on the doorstep. And get stuck in.