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May: At the forefront of the youth agenda

Speech to the Conservative Future National Weekend

I would like to take this opportunity to outline to you the direction our Party will follow in the next few years, and to seek your full involvement in it.

But I firstly want to deal with what we have achieved in the past year.

Iain Duncan Smith became our leader twelve months ago. It was a difficult time. I think we can be honest about the challenges he faced.

Our second devastating election defeat left many in the Party demoralised and disillusioned. Some in the media were predicting our demise. Others wondered what we stood for in the modern world.

And at the same time, the world itself was in turmoil. We were standing on the brink of conflict, and we were fearful of the threat to our own country.

We can be proud of the leadership Iain showed during the difficult months after September 11th, and we can be proud that the qualities he displayed in his approach to the War on Terror have been the hallmark of his leadership as a whole.

Strength, purpose and tolerance - these are the qualities that mark out our Leader and our Party.

And as a result of those qualities, we have come a long way in the past year.

We are more united than for many years; we are focused on the task ahead; and we are determined to succeed.

And perhaps more important than all these things is the fact that we know how to achieve that success.

We have to begin by defining the problems - what they are, and why they exist.

Then we have to develop Conservative solutions, based on what we have heard from experts and seen in other countries.

And we have to do all this while also changing our Party so that when we have developed our solutions, people are ready and willing to hear them.

This past year has been about making those changes, and finding out about the problems we need to address.

We began by looking abroad: finding out how they do things better than we do. Because the fact is they do.

For example, look at the health service. In Germany, there are no waiting lists; in Denmark, patients have a legal right to treatment within four weeks of seeing their GP; and in France, people are twice as likely to survive liver cancer as people in Britain.

Yet remarkably, our Government claims we have nothing to learn from them. Our Government believes all we need is more money. No reform, no new direction, no change at all.

While this orthodoxy reigns, people in Britain will continue to get a raw deal - the crime victim, the commuter, the child.

Because there is a new victim of crime in Britain every five seconds.

We spend longer commuting to work than anyone else in Europe.

More than 30,000 British children left school without a single GCSE last year.

These are the facts, and if our Government doesn't think there is a better way of doing things, then we certainly do.

But we won't find all the answers straight away. We are taking our time to develop sensible, coherent policies to tackle these problems. No one would have taken us seriously if we had proposed immediate solutions just one year after losing the last election.

Some in the media find this frustrating, but we are not here to serve the media but to serve the public.

So we have identified better systems in other countries, we have been to look at them and we have seen the things they do best. Now we are thinking about how we can apply those things to our country.

And we are also beginning to put forward policies to tackle the problems we have identified.

Only this week, Damian Green proposed a solution to the problem of enforcing discipline in schools. This is an area where the Government has truly failed. Their original school exclusion targets made it difficult for Headteachers to enforce discipline, by denying them the right to exclude pupils who are violent or abusive.

This is a typical Labour policy. A centrally determined initiative which reduces discretion for schools and produces disastrous results.

Since their policy was put into force, serious assaults against teachers have risen fourfold. Teachers have told us that discipline is now one of the main barriers to a good education for children.

So we propose to give schools greater discretion to exclude problem pupils, and we will require parents to play a greater role in ensuring their children behave well, because it is not right that the education of the many should be disrupted by the actions of the few.

This is just one example of how our approach is fundamentally different to the Government's. We believe in giving people discretion and choice - the Government believes in imposing uniform policies on everyone.

And while Labour are concerned with performance targets and new directives, we are concerned with the children who are left behind.

We are concerned with the one child out of every six who leaves their inner city school with no qualifications. We are concerned that nearly one in every two teachers in inner cities leaves the profession within three years, further disrupting the education of our young.

And without a basic education, what hope do children in our inner cities have, and what hope does our society have?

Because we are all working for a better society.

We have a vision of society based on helping the vulnerable, not penalising the strong. And we have a duty to reflect that vision through the way we speak, the way we act and the way we are.

If we want to be the Party of the vulnerable, we have to include them in our ranks.

If we want to be the Party of public services, we have to attract public servants to our midst.

If we want to be the Party of Britain, we have to represent Britain in our Party.

That means representing the old and the young, the male and the female, the black and the white, and making no distinction between the two. Because none of these things matter, what matters is that you are committed to making our country better, and that you have an open mind about how to do it.

So we have being changing the way we do things to attract more people to our Party. We have reassessed our language and our actions. We are determined that our candidates at local and national level will be more representative of the country we seek to serve.

I have always had a personal commitment to increasing the number of female candidates and MPs. I have never thought we should do this by imposing quotas or all-women shortlists. If that's how other parties choose to work then it's a matter for them.

But I want our candidates to be selected on merit - not because of who they are but because of what they have to offer. And I say to you also, if you're good enough, you're old enough. So I encourage you to put yourselves forward as candidates, and this needn't simply be for Westminster.

Across Britain, Conservatives are doing good things in local councils. We are well on our way to becoming the largest party of local government in England, and it's not hard to see why. The independent audit commission says that local residents are more satisfied with local public services in Conservative councils than Labour or LibDem councils.

And so today, I want to invite you to consider what you can do in your own local areas. Are you ready to act as an ambassador for our Party in your local council? If you are, you will be doing a tremendous job.

And also today, I want to congratulate everyone involved in Conservative Future for the job you are doing to take our message to younger people. I also congratulate Justin Tomlinson on receiving the nomination to be your next National Chairman, but he should know that he has a tough act to follow. Hannah Parker's legacy is great, and I know you will join me in paying tribute to the work she has done in taking the movement forward and in wishing her well in her future career.

Your decision to nominate Justin to take over without opposition shows just how strong and united Conservative Future is. These are the qualities we seek to reflect elsewhere in the Party.

And because of your strength, you are in a better position than ever to attract more young people to the Conservatives at this year's Freshers' events at universities around the country. We are set to launch a massive recruitment drive, with more than 80 universities being targeted. I know that we will gain many new members, and I'm sure it won't simply be for your legendary social nights, but because of our Party's vision and approach.

We know that young people are turning to us, because in April Richard Hilton was elected to the National Executive of the National Union of Students, with more votes than any of the Liberal and Labour candidates. Congratulations Richard, and everyone else involved in his election.

So, as you play your part in our future, let me assure you that you have my full support and the support of the entire Party. The presence of Richard Stephenson on the Party Board is evidence that we are serious about reaching out to younger members. Richard brings with him a youthful outlook and professional experience, and I very much look forward to working with him.

I hope also you will take the support of over 30 MPs and MEPs for the upcoming 'Politics Unplugged' events to be a sign of our total commitment to you.

And I should like if I may, to pay a further tribute to two more people - Shailesh Vara and Charles Hendry. As you know, Shailesh is unable to be here this weekend. But he is fully committed to CF, and I believe he's doing a great job in increasing the profile and status of our youth movement.

Charles too, has thrown himself into his role as Youth Spokesman, and is doing an excellent job with the many initiatives he has put in place. We are now consulting many youth organisations about our policies through a monthly email - a vital initiative which will certainly improve our policy-making and our support among important groups.

All these things combined put our Party at the forefront of the youth agenda in politics today, and that is where we fully intend to stay.

But we know we won't do that by initiatives alone. Ultimately it is issues and policies that matter - and we have made progress there too.

I believe that young people are concerned mainly about the issues that concern us all - the things that affect our quality of life. They haven't stopped voting because they aren't interested in these things; they've stopped voting because they don't think politicians are interested in them.

Of course, we are concerned about them, but it's not enough for us simply to say that, we have to prove it by going out and showing through our actions that we want to make things better.

One of the most powerful political images of the past year for me was the sight of David Willetts spending a night on the streets of London with the homeless. He wasn't pushing his own agenda. David didn't claim to have any easy answers to the problem. He was simply looking at it, and finding out about the everyday problems faced by people living on the streets of our capital city.

David described the experience. He has talked of one group huddled by the side of Westminster Cathedral - less than a mile from the House of Commons and directly opposite the offices of the Government's Rough Sleeper Unit. The unit's sign, which they can see from where they lie, should mean something to them, but as is too often the way: politicians try to help but it is remote and useless.

For that one night at least, politics wasn't remote from them. There was someone who wanted to listen, and that person was a Conservative.

There are many other such examples I could talk about. Oliver Letwin, for example, becoming the first senior politician to visit the London-based charity 'Kids Company'. Here we see a charity seeking to help young people away from a life of crime, and yet in seven years of operation no senior politician has bothered to visit. The local Labour council even wants to close it down.

We also talked about mental illness when it was unfashionable to do so, we met with women who were victims of domestic violence, and we took the lead on tackling world poverty by addressing the concerns of the groups who staged a mass lobby of Parliament in June.

As a result, we have attracted much praise from such groups and a little criticism from others. But I can tell you that people are beginning to think again about the Conservative Party. They are sitting up and taking notice, because all of a sudden we are not what they thought we were.

As Iain put it on Thursday, we have fought our way to 'base camp'. Now, we have to move forward together.

I was delighted when Iain asked me to be Party Chairman, because it gives me the opportunity to do the things we need to do if we are to drive the Party forward.

Becoming more representative is part of it, but the most important thing of all is that we instil a new culture of campaigning in our Party.

I think we have made good progress in changing our focus. I think we have stopped talking to ourselves and have started talking to others. But the next stage is to start telling others who we are, what we want to do, and what our opponents are really about.

You have a crucial role here. With your help we can really change the way people see politics in our country. But we are going to have to campaign better, harder and longer than ever before to do so.

Part of our recent problem has been a certain complacency throughout the Party. It was as if we expected the country to be forever grateful for the reforms of the 80s: as if it was only a matter of time until the public realised the error of their ways and turned to us again.

I'm sure I don't need to tell you that that view is simply wrong.

We have allowed ourselves to be outflanked by our opponents. The Liberal Democrats in particular have increased their support simply by virtue of campaigning better locally than we do. Now it's time for us to go after them as we never have before.

Iain promised and delivered a new Liberal Democrat unit to focus on their dishonesty. Some of us wondered where he was going to get all the staff for such a massive job.

But nonetheless, we have begun to analyse what they really stand for, and the results are very interesting.

For example, did you know that Liberal Democrats stand for higher fuel taxes, so that elderly people would have to spend more of their limited pension on heating their home?

Did you know that Liberal Democrats stand for increased charges in the health service?

Did you know that Liberal Democrats want to make it easier for people to use hard drugs such as heroin and crack cocaine?

Well, if you didn't know, you can be sure that no one out there knows that either. So we have to be prepared to tell them the truth, how Liberal Democrats say one thing, but do another. And how they are seeking to hide their damaging policies behind a mask of confusion.

Because, when you challenge them about their policies they try to disown them. They won't actually admit any of their plans, but they are all there if you know where to look.

Charles Kennedy should take note: We know where to look and we will expose his party for what they truly are - dishonest and devious. Remember what their own campaigning handbook tells them - 'Be wicked, act shamelessly, stir endlessly'. Surely all things that come naturally to most Liberal Democrats?

The fact that such a party has been able to rise to such a level merely shows the value of good local campaigning. So we must not only match them, but better them.

Over the coming years we will be campaigning hard on the streets of Britain. At next year's local elections, in the Scottish and Welsh elections and beyond, we will be exposing our opponents and pushing our alternative message.

And we will also utilize new methods of campaigning. As you have led the way, we will make use of the internet and other new technologies to get our message out.

Because we have a good message to sell. Our message of reform strikes a chord with those who work in and use public services. Our message of compassion resonates with those whom society has left behind. Our message of freedom and opportunity has sustained us over the years, and it means as much today as it ever did.

But we can't put any of these things into action from where we are. We can cajole and persuade - as we have done - but if we want to realize a Conservative vision of society we have to have a Conservative government.

If we want our society to care for the weak, if we want our communities to be forces for good, if we want our country to be better than it is, then we have to work harder than ever, longer then ever and better than ever before.

I believe our Party is strong. I believe we have a purpose. I believe we know where we are going and we know how to get there.

We have begun to make the changes we must.

And now, if we all play our part, I truly believe we are able to win once again, and set about the task of building a better Britain together.

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