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Big challenges, need big changes...
Big challenges, need big changes

Prime Minister Tony Blair's speech to the Scottish Labour Party Conference in Aviemore today follows.

We have a big challenge ahead of us. In May next year, come the third Scottish Parliament elections. Let me recommend third term Government to you. Government is always better than Opposition.

Opposition, however, can sometimes seem inviting. It's so easy. You can luxuriate in criticism of the decision-makers without the discomfort of taking the decision. You can analyse the choices endlessly without having to make any. Doing is so much harder than saying.

Parties can accept the invitation to Opposition; occasionally without even consciously realising it. But we learnt in the wilderness years that such a course speaks of a weak political character; and we should want none of it.

Because we know what the impotence of Opposition does, not to us, the politicians, but to those people we came into politics to represent. And after the 18 years of Opposition, we can measure the difference because of the years, since 1997 of Government. We know the difference. Here in Scotland, over 100,000 children lifted from not just absolute but relative poverty; the same for almost 100,000 pensioners; the number of young unemployed more than halved; Sure Start Scotland: do you think the Tories would have done it, in our unreformed UK had they won in 1997?

Or the free bus travel for over 60s and disabled people?

Or the Warm Deal programme that has helped cut to a third the numbers suffering fuel poverty?

And would they have quadrupled the numbers who have joined Credit Unions?

Or introduced the most progressive homelessness legislation in Europe?

We don't need to speculate on the difference. We know the difference a Labour Government for the UK and a Labour Government in Scotland makes and it is measured in the lives changed for the better of thousands indeed hundreds of thousands of people.

And when we have setbacks and the problems mount and we become, naturally and rightly, the object of people's frustrations and disappointments, people, who for all the improvements, lead tough lives, we should remember our central mission: to serve the people; to win power not for office but because whilst, for all the lives changed, any child remains poorly educated, any patient waits in pain; any citizen lives in fear or poverty or without hope, our duty is to win to change their lives too.

And, at times, modern politics is almost a conspiracy against understanding. Imagine if you are a member of the public. What do you read or hear about politics? A barrage of noise about process and personality, as if the whole thing were just another branch of celebrity culture. No wonder they feel shut out. But of all this stuff is about the business of politics. It is not the purpose of politics. The purpose is people.

That is why whatever the ups and downs of the daily news cycle, I will focus on one thing: getting the job done; getting the policies right for people; making the hard decisions to make their lives better.

And making their lives better in the way they want; helping them fulfil their dreams, not ours; their aspirations, their hopes, their expectations. Our job is to serve them. To win power so as to give them power.

Empowerment is not about institutions or constitutions. It is a frame of mind. It is to say that the purpose of collective action is always to set the individual free, to liberate their potential, to let them make the choices that otherwise only the privileged exercise. That is how we won. That is why we deserved to win.

And here's the good news. Have confidence. There is only one dominant policy agenda in British politics today; that is ours: New Labour. After a third victory, we are the pole around which the other parties congregate. And what a confused congregation they are.

The Tories have lapsed in to total policy incoherence. They advocate action on climate change; but oppose the Climate Change Levy that will reduce carbon emissions by nearly 4m tonnes by 2010. They proclaim a new found desire for social justice but want to scrap the New Deal that has helped 170,000 in Scotland alone back into work. They attack us on crime but oppose stronger measures on ASB and terrorism. They say they want to work constructively in Europe but want to leave the European Conservative Party and join up with the far right, including one Party who believes women shouldn't be allowed to stand for Parliament. They say they now accept devolution but want Scots MPs to be second-class members at Westminster.

They are a curious mixture of new fashions and old prejudices. Do you know the Shadow Chancellor went to Ireland the other day and enthused about their economic progress, but could barely bring himself to acknowledge that membership of the EU might just have had something to do with it?

If the Tories have become incoherent, the Lib Dems always have been. I used to bemoan the fact that the Lib Dems weren't serious; until I realised that they were Lib Dems precisely because they weren't serious. It's in their DNA. Show them a political opportunity and they'll take it. Show them a tough decision and they'll fake it.

That leaves, in Scotland, the SNP, the separatists. Funny that the one policy that defines their politics is the one they daren't talk about. Why? Because devolution answered Scotland's call for a just political settlement. No longer can separatism exploit that grievance. Let May 2007 be the time when Scotland turns its back, once and for all, on the backward, damaging deception that is Scottish separatism.

In Government, therefore, we have changed the agenda. We set the pace others must adjust to. In the end, that is what will win through. Look at what, under Jack's leadership, you are achieving.

You led the way on smoking. Your Hungry for Success programme for school meals in Scotland is what we are now copying in England. A new generation of council leaders like Steven Purcell in Glasgow are revolutionising policy areas like housing.

You brought in the tough new ASB measures that are helping relieve hard-pressed communities. The Tories barely cared; the Lib Dems barely agreed. You did it. The Fresh Talent programme, attracting high quality graduates to Scotland, would never have happened without Jack's persistence.

Yesterday, the NHS in Scotland could proudly proclaim no-one waiting more than six months for their operation.

All of it about empowering people and communities to change for the better.

None of it would have been done without bold leadership here; and thanks to Gordon and to Alistair, strong leadership in the UK, providing the stable economy and high levels of investment Scotland and the UK need.

No wonder the Tories now talk about economic efficiency and social justice. Because under this Labour Government they have seen them in action.

In the harsh daily grind of political life, this big picture is obscured. But take a step back and you see it clearly.

And all of these changes here and in Westminster were a struggle. The smoking ban would produce an outcry; the ASB measures, an outrage against civil liberties; Andy Kerr's new NHS reforms, the end of the NHS; the minimum wage, would produce more unemployment; and remember devolution itself - the break-up of the UK and yet the UK has never been stronger.

What do we learn from this? Doing the right thing may be painful at the time, but ultimately it is the only way to do the winning thing.

And as you know, here am I, locked at the moment in passionate debates about English education, anti-terrorist laws, ID cards, regulatory reform and with welfare and pensions on the horizon. I know it's difficult. But I know something else from the experience of Government. Get the job done and by the next election, people will ask what the fuss was about and the other parties, now ferocious in their dissent, will be passive in their acceptance.

Big challenges need big changes. And the challenges Scotland and the UK face are big, like every other developed nation in the world.

From the East, from Asia comes the heavy tread of the onward march of two emerging giants, China and India. China, about to build world-class universities and science parks, because they are no longer prepared to compete only in low value-added goods and services; India, already producing more engineering graduates than the whole of Europe put together, determined also to challenge us and the US for supremacy in biotechnology.

Putting the economic power in the hands of people to take on this competitive challenge needs a new agenda. Investment in science. Encouragement of new businesses. And above all, now and always, education. But today, vocational education and skills as much as academic education in schools. 34,000 modern apprenticeships in Scotland is a great record. But we need more. Half of children getting 5 standard grades at 16 is so much better than we inherited. But not good enough. Edinburgh today the fifth largest financial centre in Europe. But we need to keep it there and grow it.

The opportunities of globalisation are every bit as great as the dangers, indeed more so. But we only escaped 18 years of Opposition when we became the Party of enterprise and economic stability as well as social justice, when we celebrated success as well as attacked failure; and here and in Europe we need to be on the side of our business and work force as they battle the pressure of the global challenge.

Just as we congratulate those included in the ranks of the successful, we must never forget these excluded from even the hope of joining them. These are the powerless one. We live in a different society from the post-war years. Then there was an exclusive middle class and a majority working class. Today the boundaries are less marked and the spread of prosperity so much greater, but there are still many who are working poor and some, far too many, who we call socially excluded. Over the past 8 years, in Scotland and the UK, we have helped change this. Tax credits have given thousands of families a decent living income for the first time. Budget after Budget has seen a careful and planned increase in support for families with children. The huge lift in support for poor children has been one of our proudest achievements and much more must be done. However, we must be honest. For some, those who from generation to generation, are brought up in workless households in poor estates, often poorly educated and frankly sometimes poorly parented the rising tide has not helped lift them.

We need, in the UK Government and in partnership with you in Scotland, to examine again their plight, in our case with a Cabinet Minister pulling the work together across Government.

We intervene too late. We spend without asking how effective is the spending. These are the children who are the clients of many agencies of Government but the charges of no-one, prey to drugs, into crime and anti-social behaviour, lacking in self-belief, lacking a basic stake in the society into which they are born. It isn't good enough. This is not a caring country whilst we allow such hopelessness to go unchecked.

It isn't right and we can't afford it. Instead, we need to increase our working population. Again we can have huge pride in the fact that the numbers on unemployment benefit have been halved. This is a social justice dividend for Britain we can invest. But we also know that to have 2 million in the UK still economically inactive, when so many, with help could work and want to work, is unsustainable if we want to pay proper pensions not just to today's pensioners, for whom we have done so much, but for those of tomorrow and future generations.

We know too, that modern healthcare is not just about treating us when sick but keeping us healthy. Round the world, there are new cures, new ways of managing chronic disease, new evidence, overwhelming now, of the importance of diet and exercise in preventing illness. New ways of working. We all know nurses are highly trained and can do so much more if old demarcations are broken down. We can all see, in every other walk of life, barriers between public, independent and voluntary sectors coming down. Here in Scotland, you are embarking on major reform. We are doing the same. But let's be clear why. Not for reform's sake. But because we know that in the modern world the NHS - our creation - survives and prospers not by resisting change but by embracing it, so that every person, has the power in their hands to get speed of care and quality of care that otherwise only wealth can buy.

And in making these changes, we are not just improving lives, we indicate our instincts and our true purpose: putting power in the hands of people. Our idea of Government is not to control, but to enable; not to take decisions for people but to empower them to take their own. The Party of aspiration and ambition as well as justice and compassion. On the people's side, not the side of Government, the state or any of the vested interests that go with it, but having the vision to see the big challenges and the courage to make change so that people can meet those challenges, confident and secure.

How can the status quo be the answer to a changing world? That's why I say: tell me the change we have made, we now regret. Remember here at the Scottish Conference, the ructions over Clause IV. Yet this Party here in Scotland showed the way.

See how we lead the debate on the economy, through Bank of England independence. When in years gone by Labour could not be trusted with economic management.

We have forced other parties to accept that investment in public services was necessary; and won the argument that without reform, investment is not sufficient. We realised that though opportunities were vital to communities suffering from the Tory years, responsibilities were vital too. We now lead the world in action on global poverty, especially in Africa; but in 1997 Britain was cutting its overseas aid. Last year as President of the EU we agreed the start of accession negotiations for Turkey and escaped from a Budget impasse people thought impossible, but a decade ago we were mired in the Beef War.

We have always done best when we have led and not followed, driven change not been immobilised by it.

Do our best for people. This is the core of our mission. Focus on this, the real job, and we overcome the frenzy of the political process, the personality fest, the disconnect at the heart of the division of politics and people.

Let others obsess with personality. Let the Tories play catch up with the real world, pretending there is something revolutionary about saying the NHS is a good thing or we should care about the environment. And let the Lib Dems play whatever game they want according to the postcode zone they're in.

We know what we have to do. Working for the people: their living standards, their jobs and business, security on their streets, standards in their schools, care in their hospitals. Putting power in their hands to lead the lives they want to lead.

That is not reality politics but real politics about real, hard-working people.

We were elected to serve the people. We do not do this by soft choices but hard choices; not by retreat but by reform. My politics are modernising, but my passion is people. Serve the people well and we will be elected to serve once more - in Scotland and in Britain.

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