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Rifkind: We do have a mountain to climb, but let's set our sights high

Speech to Conservative Party Conference 2005

"The theme of this afternoon is about Quality of Life. We should remember that parties and elections are not ends in themselves, but as a means of serving the people.

We were in power for 18 years. These years were so successful that even our opponents saw our achievements as irreversible. As a junior minister I was one of a team of people who introduced laws to allow people the right to buy their homes.

Under Labour, we have seen years of missed opportunities. Labour has failed to make lasting improvements in the public services. One of their greatest failures has been pensions. Even Labour's Frank Field has said that when Labour came to power we had one of the strongest pension sectors in Europe, now we have one off the weakest.

The result of their failure has been significant human suffering. Only two weeks ago, I was in Cardiff meeting redundant steelworkers who stand to lose up most of their pensions. There are thousands of other people throughout Britain who are facing their own pension crisis.

The real culprit here in Gordon Brown. The Chancellor's pensions' tax raid has resulted in £4 billion per year removed from pension funds. Even now he does not admit the foolishness of what he did. Blair has been a brilliant politician but a lousy Prime Minister. He has been unable to deliver.

Why we need one nation

So why has the Conservative Party not befitted? I believe it is because it has failed to appreciate the way in which politics has changed. Most people do not think of themselves as leftwing or rightwing. They look to politicians not for theories and ideologies, but to solve problems.

Nor must we think that we can decide the agenda that the public wish to talk about. In 2001 we campaigned on Save the Pound. The country supported our position, but most people did not see this as the central issue.

Likewise at the last General Election, many people got the impression that we were presenting immigration as the main issue of the election. In some places no doubt it was, but not for most of the UK.

The battleground

As to Gordon Brown, let's not delude ourselves. He will not be more leftwing than Blair. He will not suddenly swing Labour to the left. Brown said last week that it is his desire is to dominate the centre round.

The battleground at the next General Election will be the centre ground of politics. Left-wingers and right-wingers by themselves cannot win a general election. Only by appealing to millions of people who think of themselves as inhabiting the centre ground can we have any hope of winning the election.

When the Tories are seen as generous, moderate, practical, inclusive and considerate will millions of people who do not see themselves as being Conservative be comfortable supporting us.

We do not have to be a pale imitation of Labour. We have within our own tradition the One Nation dimension of conservatism.

One Nation

One Nation is not a sound bite. It is not something invented by spin doctors. It goes back to the very roots of our history.

We have a long history of one nation Conservatism, which has transformed Britain and won us the respect of the people.

William Wilberforce, a strong Tory, did more than anyone else to end the evils of slavery. Lord Shaftesbury worked to improve factory conditions. In the 20th century Butler extended secondary education for millions of working class children while Macmillan built decent houses for hundreds of thousands of people after the war.

But as a party we have no need to be depressed. The Labour Party is deteriorating. It has long ago planted the seeds of its own decay. Tony Blair is on the way out. Labour has no guiding set of beliefs. Socialisms only works in heaven were they do not need it or hell when they have it already.

Yes, in Gordon Brown they have a formidable political adversary. But the rest of the Cabinet are political pigmys. They present themselves as model ministers, and in some senses they are. After all, what are models but small imitations of the real thing?

We need to have confidence in our own believes. Our party is the longest serving, most successful party in western political history.

We have known triumph and disaster and are capable of treating them both the same.

We faced massive defeats in 1906 and 1945. We recovered from both.

It is the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II. It is also 60 years since Churchill was ejected from office by the British electorate. After he lost, Churchill did not respond by arguing for one more heave, or more of the same. He did not retreat into some rightwing bunker.

He brought together a group of younger Conservatives who together formed the One Nation group. They were so successful in rebuilding the Conservatives as a modern and successful party that in six years, under the marvellous slogan "Set the people free," they threw out the Labour Party for 13 years.

In the past month, I have been touring Britain. I have not spent time in Hampshire or Surrey, nor much time in Kensington and Chelsea, but I have been travelling in parts of the country which do not have any of many Conservative MPs.

I believe that our basic beliefs and values remain sound. I joined the Tory Party because I saw it as a unique combination of patriotism and principle and through these, being able to provide liberty, equality of opportunity and improvements to the condition of the people.

That is our challenge. Maybe we do have a mountain to climb, but let's set our sights high. And when we get to the summit, we can serve our true purpose, which is to serve the Britain people."

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