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4.22 pm

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton): When the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West (Mr. Kennedy) was elected to the House in 1983--a pleasant, shy young lad--he seemed to have a sort of promise. I never thought that that promise would be ruined by his becoming leader of the Liberal Democrat party. Ted Heath--to whom he referred last week during your election, Mr. Speaker--described Lonrho as the unacceptable face of capitalism. I am sorry to say that the right hon. Gentleman has become the smiling face of opportunism, which is what the Liberal Democrat party represents. Some political parties--the Conservative party, as well as the Labour party--look at a grievance in different ways and try to find a solution. The Liberal Democrats look at a solution and try to find a grievance.

The right hon. Gentleman said that there was no visible evidence of an improvement in public services during the four years of the previous Parliament. He should read his

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own words; I think that he even said that public services had deteriorated. The new deal, whose funding his party voted against, has been responsible for the improvement of school after school in my constituency, but that would never have happened if his party had had its way.

The right hon. Gentleman lectured us about the proportion of the vote that our party polled in the general election. Like him, I lament and regret the reduction in the turnout, but the fact is that his party received its lowest number of votes since 1983--18 years ago. The proportion of votes cast for his party was lower than that cast for it under Jeremy Thorpe in February 1974. The only reason that his party has more seats now than the number achieved by Jeremy Thorpe with a higher proportion of the vote is the voting system, which it derides and very much dislikes, together with the unrequited tactical votes bestowed upon it by Labour voters who, for reasons that escape me, dislike it less than they dislike the Conservative party. [Interruption.] Is the right hon. Gentleman heckling? He was rude when my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) heckled. He must keep better order if he is going to lecture us on how to behave.

On Monday, I celebrated the 31st anniversary of my election to the House of Commons. I am now subject to the conjugated verb, "I am a senior Member, you are a veteran, he is clapped out." I want to pass on to the Opposition and the Government Front Bench my reflections on what I have learned in different phases of those years. I say to the Conservative party that a member of the current shadow Cabinet asked me early on in the previous Parliament, while we were part of an overseas delegation, what the Conservative party had to do to regain its place in the electorate's esteem. I said that it had to decide what it was for, but what we heard in the general election was only what it was against. That was why the electorate rejected it so decisively.

The Conservative party must understand that it is one thing to be rejected as a Government, as it was in 1997, but another to be rejected as an Opposition by a similar majority. That is a serious development in its history. The electorate saw the Conservatives only as being against things such as foreigners and asylum seekers, which was their code for race. One reason why the ethnic minorities in my constituency gave more active support to the Labour party than they even gave before was because they saw the Conservatives as an enemy who spoke about them, not to them. I welcomed the fact that the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) moved away from such talk today.

A political party that tries to get votes from the gutter will discover that not enough of the electorate are prepared to get into the gutter with it. The electorate were better than the Conservatives thought, which is one reason why they were so decisively defeated a few days ago. They need to learn that lesson; my party failed to learn it for a long time. What baffles me is that the Conservatives saw what happened to the Labour party in that terrible decade of the 1980s. They know what members of the Labour party did to each other and how disconnected we were from the electorate, but they have learned nothing from that appalling experience. We were carried through by the courage of, first, Neil Kinnock, then John Smith and, finally, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister.

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It is not enough to elect a personality as party leader. The Conservatives have to assess how to re-relate themselves, not in terms of jargon about inclusiveness, but to the mass of the electorate within society. Otherwise, they are in for a long period of opposition. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister knows, I say that as one who rightly forecast a similar majority in this general election as I forecasted for the previous one. However, I did not bet on that and am a poorer man for it.

I turn now to my right hon. and hon. Friends. It took the Labour party a long time to learn where we went wrong from 1979 onwards. Now that we have learned that lesson, I hope that it is learned for good. When a Government have a very large majority, as this one have, there can be a temptation for Government Members to believe that they can let fly and behave as an unofficial Opposition--and looking at the Opposition, that might be very tempting.

One of the most important things that we ought to have learned during our long period in opposition is what loyalty is all about. Ken Livingstone--now happily no longer a Member of this place--used to believe that loyalty was supporting people only when one agreed with them, but Lord Melbourne summed up what loyalty is really about. When somebody said to him,

he replied:

I am not saying for one instant that a form of sycophancy that I have pursued fairly consistently should be the theme of the entire party--

David Winnick (Walsall, North): I hope not.

Mr. Kaufman: Now, David, you shut up.

We have to look at what happened when large numbers of the party's members decided that they knew better than not only the party leadership but the electorate.

Towards the end of the last Parliament, there were a considerable number of panegyrics, in which I did not feel able to join, for Mr. Wedgwood Benn, who tried to turn the Labour party into a Stalinist party, not believing that the electorate had any voice in what the Labour party should become. Having played a very large part in keeping us out of office for 18 years, Mr. Benn's final gift to the Labour party was to hand over to the Liberal Democrats a seat that my friend Eric Varley used to win by 18,000.

Not long ago, I got an unsolicited letter from a stranger that said, "Dear Mr. Kaufman, I saw you on television the other night. I know that if something horrible comes on television, you can turn it off, but you came on too quickly." In the case of Mr. Wedgwood Benn I am quicker off the mark with my remote control, so I did not hear what was reported to me--namely, that he said that Chesterfield was lost because it was an old Labour seat. It strikes me as very strange that old Labour voters should demonstrate that they are old Labour by electing a Liberal Democrat, although the Liberal Democrats are of course now the tax and spend party. Perhaps that is what he meant.

Loyalty and cohesion are essential for our party, but that does not mean unquestioning adherence to whatever Ministers put forward. There were occasions in the last

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Parliament when some of my hon. Friends felt it necessary to disagree with the Government, and I am sure that there will be such occasions in this Parliament, perhaps involving substantial numbers of colleagues. That may be appropriate in certain circumstances because no Government, especially one with a majority of this size, must feel that they can do whatever they like without responding to Parliament and, in particular, to their loyal supporters. I hope that all Labour Members can get together to make sure that the Government understand what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister meant when he said the day after the election that he was under an instruction to deliver.

Many good things have happened in each of our constituencies since the 1997 general election. My constituents have been liberated from the scourge of mass unemployment, particularly youth unemployment. Because we have a national minimum wage, the choice in my constituency is no longer between unemployment and poverty pay. Those are huge achievements by our Government.

I have already described what has happened in education. There have been very beneficial consequences from the phasing out of the assisted places scheme. Three schools in my constituency offered assisted places, from which 90-odd boys and girls living in my constituency benefited. Now, instead, 14,000 children in the state schools in my constituency benefit from the £2 million that went to them.

I say to my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench that money and the will, important though they are, are by no means sufficient to deliver the services that the Government and their supporters want--and that our constituents certainly voted for. One thing that must be done is to crack open the stranglehold of inefficient low-level bureaucracy that holds back the changes that we want and that the Government are investing in.

There is no excuse for the local health authority closing down the clinic for epileptics at Manchester royal infirmary, leaving some epileptics to travel miles for treatment and others with no choice at all. It is unacceptable that, owing to a reorganisation, the local health authority did not replace the Macmillan nurse, and people suffering from terminal cancer have not received the treatment that they wanted. The reason for that was not lack of will or finance from the Government, but a sheer shambles of insensitive failure to administrate properly at local level. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and his colleagues must tackle that level, among others, if we are to deliver what our constituents want and voted for.

I am very happy that our Government have been returned, and with such a large majority. That gives them great scope to do all the things that our constituents want them to do. Since the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks referred to it, I include in that a ban on hunting with dogs. I hope that if this House of Commons votes for a complete ban, the Government will force that through the House of Lords under the Parliament Acts.

Although hunting with dogs is an emotional and significant matter, as the Government have said, and as we certainly believe, what we want is the delivery of good health and education services, better housing, more and better paid jobs and the freeing of people from the fear of crime on the streets. Antisocial behaviour orders are

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beginning to work in Manchester to that end. I look to my right hon. and hon. Friends to deliver that. If they do so, I shall win the bet that I made last night with Bruce Anderson that Labour will win the next general election by an even larger majority.

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