Ashdown bids to steal Labour's clothes

Postcard to Blair: 'You must be clear where you stand... Let us know'
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Paddy Ashdown yesterday projected the Liberal Democrats as the "lever of change" that would force an incoming Labour government to regenerate Britain with a genuinely radical administration of the centre left.

Mr Ashdown set out to reclaim the high ground of national "reform and modernisation" from Labour, occupied some of the territory vacated by Tony Blair with a high- risk but unashamed pledge to raise taxes where necessary, and urged his party to play a "decisive" role in the aftermath of a Tory general election defeat.

Mr Ashdown responded to Mr Blair's weekend offer of inter-party co-operation by calling on him to back Commons electoral reform in the referendum which the Labour leader has promised in his first Parliament as Prime Minister. He also challenged him to back Liberal Democrat commitments to pounds 2bn more spending on education and the restoration of the pounds 1bn Railtrack to state control.

In a leadership speech which brought the conference enthusiastically to its feet, Mr Ashdown unequivocally dedicated his party to the task of ending 17 years of Conservative rule but warned that, after a change of government, "what we now have to fear is not that things should change. What we have to fear is that things should stay the same."

As part of a conscious effort to demonstrate that his party was ready to outflank Labour in the setting of clear and specific priorities, the Liberal Democrat leader went on to promise an environmental policy designed to shift expenditure from private to public transport by premium taxes for gas-guzzling cars, urban road pricing and a switch of investment from road to rail.

Mr Ashdown repeated that income tax would rise by 1p in the pound if necessary to pay for more education funding and told the conference: "If you never put up taxes, then the rest of your pledges are pipe dreams."

In what could have been a general election speech, Mr Ashdown invoked the Liberals' victory in 1906 and the role of the two great Liberals, John Maynard Keynes and William Beveridge, in shaping the programme on which Labour won its landslide victory in 1945. He told the conference: "Now at the end of the century, it is time for us to play that role again."

And in terms which will be read as setting a price that Mr Ashdown hopes to exact in return for backing - and perhaps participating in - a Blair- led administration, the Liberal Democrat leader welcomed Mr Blair's reaffirmation that he will hold a referendum on electoral reform but added: "It is not leadership to ask others to decide when you won't decide yourself. Holding a referendum is not an alternative to holding an opinion."

Promising that "We have always believed in working with others where we agree", Mr Ashdown summed up his message to Mr Blair in a "postcard from Glasgow": "You must be clear where you stand. We are. Let us know when you are."