AT THE last election, few people in Scotland imagined that Scottish Liberal Democrat MPs would be serving in government. Yet, as the leadership debates this week showed, multi-party politics is now a reality across the UK.
For the first time, the choice at this election is not about who will walk through the door of Downing Street, but about which of the smaller parties will walk through with them.
Across much of Scotland we’re the only party who can stop the SNP
This was almost incomprehensible back in 2010. The economy was shattered, the Eurozone was on the brink and pundits across the political spectrum had declared that a hung parliament would plunge the markets into uncertainty and chaos.
In that scenario, the Liberal Democrats had a responsibility to the whole of the UK. It was crucial that we could provide stable leadership at a time of chronic economic uncertainty: and we rose to the challenge.
The last five years have demonstrated beyond doubt that the Liberal Democrats made the right decision and are a force for good in government. We’ve taken tough decisions to get growth up and the deficit down, while also protecting the public services on which we all rely. We have been able to deliver vital Liberal Democrat policies, while preventing the Conservatives from dancing to the right-wing tune of their Eurosceptic backbenchers and the populism of Nigel Farage’s Ukip.
As a result, the economy is recovering strongly: we grew faster than any other G7 country last year, and we’re borrowing half as much as we were in 2010.
The question at this election is therefore how we finish the job.
Liberal Democrats will balance the books by 2018, and do so fairly. We won’t drag out the pain for years longer like Labour, or slash public services to the bone like the Conservatives. These parties will try and convince you that you have to choose between eliminating the deficit or protecting public services. You don’t. With the Liberal Democrats’ balanced plan, we can do both.
Hanging over all this is the SNP.
The SNP agenda is clear: to win as many Westminster seats as possible in order to keep independence on the table. They don’t see it as their role to provide responsible government: their economic plan to borrow an extra £180 billion would wreck the recovery.
The SNP’s fixation on independence has led them to take their eye off the ball when it comes to actually governing Scotland. Just look at our NHS: cancer waiting time targets missed, a hospital beds shortage, A&E departments in crisis. By borrowing even more than Labour, the SNP will put at risk the economic recovery we’ve all worked and sacrificed so hard to secure.
And, in Westminster, the SNP’s independence obsession would mean giving the big parties free rein: with dire consequences for our growing economy.
The Liberal Democrats want to do things differently. We’re not interested in simply rebuilding the old Britain, just putting the pieces back to how they were before the economic crash. We want to build a stronger economy and a fairer society, fit for a modern Scotland where everyone can get on in life.
We will deliver more powers for Scotland; balance the books to secure the recovery, and fund the Scottish NHS with £800 million extra, ensuring it delivers for the people of Scotland.
We want an economy where you keep more of what you earn, and where the lowest paid pay no income tax at all. That’s why we’ve cut income tax dramatically, letting you keep the first £10,600 you earn and putting £825 back in the pockets of more than two million Scottish workers. Now we want to go further, cutting your taxes by an extra £400 by raising the tax-free allowance to £12,500.
We want a healthy society where no-one is held back by illness or stigmatised because of it. That’s why we’ve not only protected the NHS from cuts, but also prioritised mental health care, which has been neglected for far too long.
The NHS faces big challenges over the next few years, and the Liberal Democrats are the only party to have set out fully-costed plans to give the Scottish NHS the extra £800 million it needs to meet them.
And we’ll continue our focus on mental health, too. Someone suffering from depression or an eating disorder should get the treatment and care they need, just as someone should if they have cancer or a broken leg. We want to raise mental health care up to the same standards as for physical health, by investing in better crisis care in A&Es, better care for pregnant women and new mums, and better mental health services for children.
We want to create opportunity for everyone, so that they can fulfil their potential no matter their background. That’s why Willie Rennie is fighting for proper early years education for all children; and why we have made it possible for the Scottish Government to deliver the healthy free school meals that help children concentrate through the school day.
We want work that’s rewarding, and that’s fit for 21st century Britain. That’s why we’ve helped businesses create more than two million new jobs, while also nurturing a workplace revolution that’s seen more women in work than ever before and more women on the boards of big companies.
As a Minister for Employment Relations, I have personally fought for changes to the workplace that will help families and boost businesses. We’ve given all employees the right to request flexible working, so they can find the work-life balance that suits them, and – my proudest achievement in government – introduced shared parental leave, so parents can choose how to juggle work and caring for a new baby.
The lazy, out-dated assumption that it’s always mum who does the childcare and dad who does the bread-winning is bad for women, bad for men, bad for children, and bad for businesses too. Most new dads want to spend more time with their babies, and we know that children benefit when they do. Women who want to work shouldn’t be held back, and employers shouldn’t miss out on their talents.
So we’ll encourage fathers to take more time off by tripling paternity leave, helping to break down damaging gender stereotypes and drive a dad revolution. We’ll give all working parents 15 hours’ free childcare a week, right from the moment their nine months of paid parental leave ends all the way until their child starts school.
Imagine the Britain we can build over the next five years. A stronger economy, with the national debt falling and income tax cut further for working people. A fairer society, with proper mental health care, better schools and genuine gender equality.
Across much of Scotland – from East Dunbartonshire where I live, to Inverness, to Gordon where the wonderful Christine Jardine is taking on Alex Salmond – the Liberal Democrats are the only party who can stop the SNP.
We will deliver more powers for Scotland, secure the recovery and ensure the NHS has the funding it needs. We will provide the stable government that the economy needs; and protect the public services we all depend on. This can only happen with the Liberal Democrats in Government.
Jo Swinson is the Scottish Lib Dem candidate for East Dunbartonshire