“An exit from Brexit, a grown-up approach to the economy and bold ideas to strengthen our society through the 21st century.”

The last words of Vince Cable’s first conference speech as leader of the Liberal Democrats seem to sum up perfectly the way he wants to take the party and country.

Vince Cable seems to argue for an EU referendum “on the facts” with far greater certainty and persuasiveness than Tim Farron did, his call for a centre-left approach to economics is not new but could potentially be popular and his arguments on environmental, housing and government might put the Liberal Democrats back to their position as “the” alternative party. There is certainly a lot to discern from his speech and he left the audience with much to think about.

Cable started his speech by calling out to those voters across the spectrum; reminding them of the Liberal Democrats history of opposition. He continued saying Nick Clegg going into Coalition was “the right thing to do.”  —  a bold statement for those who have negative memories of 2010. Though he did say that “trust was lost” and that the Liberal Democrats still have a long way to go in reclaiming past support. Cable claimed “history will vindicate his [Nick Clegg’s] judgement” going on to outline the Liberal Democrat achievements from raising the personal allowance to £10,000 to free school meals and the pupil premium.

Of course, as the major party opposing Brexit, this issue took up a large part of the speech and he first said that it was a “fraudulent and frivolous campaign”. He rightly argued that the full impacts of Brexit have not yet been realised but are beginning to be evidenced by the fall in the value of the pound.

After some jibes at David Davis, the Brexit team and Donald Trump; Vince Cable claimed it was unwise to put the future of Britain on the “volatile” and hate filled Trump, which Brexit seems to be ensuring. He went further, stating “the visit [of Trump] should be cancelled”, surely popular but not ground-breaking in any regard.

Vince Cable’s focus then shot towards Labour, he commended Jeremy Corbyn’s increased support but claimed, “they’re already being betrayed”. He focused on Labour’s confusion over Brexit, something many moderate supporters were upset by. Calling out to his revolutionary instincts, Cable called out to Corbyn to join them in the “anti-Brexit people’s liberation front”. He continued this by calling out to the “sensible” people of all parties to fight a hard Brexit.

Hitting upon his first important argument, Cable argued that Europe desperately needed reform but that you can’t achieve this by “walking away”. Though not a new idea, it seems to be gaining ground since Jean-Claude Juncker’s State of the Union speech. Vince Cable argued for the issue of nationals to be taken out of negotiations to stop using them as bargaining chips. He argued for a right to stay instead. A policy surely popular with Liberals.

Moving on, he astutely argued for a “first referendum on the facts”. This slight rephrasing of Tim Farron’s policy might prove more popular enticing those opposed to Brexit and those who are unsure about its trajectory. Consequently, he turned his guns on the Brexiteers arguing they now believe in the classic dictatorship slogan of “one person, one vote, once.” Relating Brexiteers to masochists, Vince Cable maintained emotionally that the young will be most damaged. Summing up, he contended the country must be brought together, that the Liberal Democrats won’t be consumed by Brexit and that they’re not “UKIP in reverse”.

Cable then spoke about the difference of experience in his and Jeremy Corbyn’s teams. From this, he strongly recommitted the “penny in the pound” of income tax to help provide £6bn for the NHS, a policy of sound judgement but which has garnered little support. Then in contrast to his time in coalition Vince Cable argued for more investment, innovation, training and retraining, long term capital and most importantly “the renaissance of manufacturing”. The first four of these are classic Liberal ideas and should always be welcomed. However, the last is the most radical and might prove to be the most popular. For too long the Liberal Democrats have been seen as a middle-class party, but with this kind of innovation, there could develop a new connection with the working-class, like that in the 19th century. He then argued for overcoming petty tribalism and short termism, “the banes of British politics”. This kind of reasoning has been seen as one of the Liberal Democrats star qualities and it must be encouraged. Continuing from this, he claimed to have learnt from both Labour and Conservative colleagues, arguing for a “what works best” attitude to parliamentary — commendable if feasible.

(Photograph: Flickr / Liberal Democrats)

Another of the Liberal Democrats key attractions in the past have been their green credentials, the Greens had them as the second most supportive of the environment in the 2017 election, Vince Cable thus talked of how the Conservatives have ruined great progress in this field in the Coalition, specifically the selling off of the Green Investment Bank, a key Liberal idea.

What came next was the most appealing part in my opinion. Vince Cable called for apprenticeships to be available to “every young person” and delicately outlined the importance of adult education in his parents lives. He, brilliantly, outlined his idea of the Liberal Democrats being the party for those whose jobs will be mechanized and replaced. Though early in development, he argued for an endowment fund for young people and disadvantaged adults which they can use at any stage in life, helping to finance further education. What would pay for this? “The fair taxation of wealth” according to Cable, and this policy, if well thought through, could truly be revolutionary. It would not only give people power and choice in their learning but would have innumerable positive consequences from the economy to culture to science.

Turning his gaze again, he attacked the financiers and bankers, arguing that they should not be the “masters” of the economy. He further attacked such institutions being focussed solely on the South-East of England, this rhetoric could easily gain support with much of the country that feels disaffected with London.

In much contrast to Coalition days, Vince Cable then argued for mass state investment in infrastructure across the country in rail, broadband and housing. He supported this by arguing this was the best time to borrow. Though slightly concerning, Vince Cable’s continued pledge of the Liberal Democrats being “the party of British business” should still be welcomed. The Liberal Democrats have been wary of globalisation in the past but hopefully a working partnership of the two will aid both. Cable then recognised this concern by reaffirming that the Liberals are “pro-worker” too, mentioning the private data companies hold as being far too excessive.

He cited the Grenfell Tower tragedy as an example of those in desperate need not being listened to and went on to describe the vast problems with the housing market. He reasoned for cutting the “fierce stranglehold of oligarchs” on the market, further arguing for “fierce tax penalties” on foreign investors and saving rural communities from the “blight” of second home ownership. This kind of nationalistic policy is to be welcomed as it demonstrates some of the vast inequalities globalisation has uncovered and created. A doubling of housing supply, a new generation of garden towns and vastly more government subsidised building are all sound, radical policies that he outlined.

Using this to outline an “inequality between generations”, Cable called for the Liberal Democrats once again to be the “champion” of the young. He then called out the “elephant in the room”  —  student debt and launched a bold review considering the setup of a graduate tax rather than debt. This is a positive move for the Liberal Democrats, who have been rightly ridiculed for their betrayal over student finance in 2010. Reinstating a long held Liberal position Vince Cable confidently argued for vote at 16, a controversial policy but a potentially popular one. This was in addition to proportional representation, a fully elected House of Lords, party funding reform and “radical” decentralization.

Coming to the end of his speech, Vince Cable again claimed he thinks the party can enjoy pre-2010 vote share. But only if the party comes into the modern age, becoming far more representative of gender and minorities. He recognised the party’s impatience for success but cleverly reminded them of the trait of endurance. Cable finished his speech by asking the party to help him in the journey back to government, a finale to a deeply interesting and wise speech.

This speech seems to have gone under the radar slightly for its radical views. Some are traditional Liberal Democrat ideas, especially around government and opposition to Brexit. However, even more radical ideas appeared in education, manufacturing and government investment. This kind of centre-left politics is sorely missing from British politics and ideas such as a pupil endowment to education and renewed investment in infrastructure not only make economic sense but are desperately what the country needs.

Vince Cable might talk calmly and astutely, however, his politics is nothing short of revolutionary. A quietly revolutionary speech and just what the country needs.🔷

(Cover: Photograph by Flickr / Liberal Democrats, Vince Cable at the LibDems Party Conference in Bournemouth, 16 September 2017)