Joining the Liberal Democrats Press Conference

  • Speech at Press Conference with Vince Cable

  • Local Government Association
    18 Smith Square, Westminster, London SW1P 3HZ

    Chuka Umunna MP

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I am absolutely delighted to be part of the Liberal Democrat team and a member of the party. And I am incredibly grateful to all in the party for making me feel so welcome. 

My values and principles come first – they are the reason I started a political journey in leaving the Labour Party. 

I am a social democrat with liberal values. Those values revolve around a fair and open Britain, which has a strong, mixed market economy, in which everyone can achieve their dreams regardless of their background. I am unapologetically an internationalist which is why I oppose Brexit and am fighting for the UK to remain in the European Union. These are very much the values of those I represent in Streatham and the same things that I stood on at the last General Election. And they are the values of the Liberal Democrats. 

Our politics is broken and the two main parties, which sit at the heart of the system, are simply not up to addressing these challenges because they are part of the problem. They have exacerbated the problems and are fuelling the divisions not only within their parties but in our country too. They have failed to provide the leadership and clear direction which the UK desperately needs, and to properly fulfil their constitutional duties as a government and opposition.

In spite of all the upheaval, there is cause to be hopeful and optimistic – this is an exciting time for progressive, centre ground politics. The local and European elections illustrated that millions of voters agree that the two main parties in UK politics are broken. It is clear the tectonic plates are shifting and the public is now more in favour of upending the two party system than at any time in my lifetime. This provides a historic opportunity to realign, change the system, fix our broken politics and resolve the problems which caused people to vote for Brexit in the first place. For the sake of all our citizens, we must grab this opportunity. 

After leaving Labour, I had thought that Britain needed a new party and I believed that was what the millions of politically homeless people in Britain wanted. I was wrong. You have your ups and your downs in politics. Politicians are all human, and we have our flaws. I have plenty! The important thing is to learn the lessons from your mistakes, to listen to what your constituents and the electorate are telling you, and to strive to do better. 

First, I massively underestimated the challenge of building a new, fully fledged party like Change UK in the midst of a national political crisis and attempting to do so at the same time as running a national election campaign. Vince was right to point to the importance of having a party infrastructure and existing relationships with hundreds of thousands of voters which hugely contributed to the party’s recent election successes. 

Secondly, there is also no doubt that under the First-Past-The-Post electoral system used in Westminster elections, there is space for only one main centre ground offer. That is clearly the Liberal Democrats. 

So what more was stopping me from joining? I found it hard to come to terms with the impact of the public spending cuts which were instigated by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government of 2010-2015. And, as you would expect, the comments I made then as Shadow Business Secretary are doing the rounds on social media – they are actually getting even more of an airing today than they did then! 

I did not disagree with the need to reduce the public sector deficit and debt – indeed Labour’s last Chancellor Alistair Darling accepted this. But I did disagree with the speed and severity of fiscal consolidation, and the extent to which cuts to public spending as opposed to tax increases were made to carry the burden. 

Four years on from their time in office, things have changed. The Liberal Democrats have voted against every Tory budget since 2015. They stood on an anti-austerity manifesto in 2017 with, for example, commitments to end the public sector pay cap, increase tax to pay for the NHS and reverse cuts to housing benefit and Universal Credit. Senior figures – including Vince – have since said that, although they curbed George Osborne’s worst excesses, they should not have allowed measures like the bedroom tax to be introduced. They also accept that a major mistake was made in making and then breaking a pledge on university tuition fees, which should never happen again. 

Most importantly, the biggest impediment to ending austerity currently is pressing on with Brexit. In every Brexit scenario tax receipts will be hit hard, depriving the Exchequer of much needed revenue to invest in public services. Both Labour and the Tories are committed to facilitating Brexit and you can’t end austerity if you want to sponsor Brexit. The Liberal Democrats are not – they were committed to a People’s Vote and remaining in the EU from the start. 

I suspect those who will be most critical of the decision I have made will be many of those I left behind in the Labour Party. The question they must answer is how, if they are committed to ending austerity, continued support of a party’s leadership that is committed to Brexit helps achieve that goal. Privately, many accept this, and know that a visceral hatred of the West and anti-Semitism is all too common place in too many Labour circles. They also abhor the bullying behaviour by supporters of the leadership as much as they do the fact it is tacitly sanctioned. In its words and deeds, Labour is not being true to the progressive values I believe in, and they know it. We all do. I say to them – particularly the social democratic centre left – there is a home for you. It is the Liberal Democrats. 

And I am convinced the Liberal Democrats, as the spearhead of a broader progressive movement in civil society, offer the best chance to improve the lives of those I represent as well as countless other citizens across our country. The time has come to put past differences behind us and, in the national interest, do what is right for the country. 

Thank you.