Lib Dem Conference: Ashdown stands up for new politics

Liberal Democrats will have to compromise their purity and their policies, Paddy Ashdown warned his party yesterday. Anthony Bevins, Political Editor, listened to a brave speech delivered by the leader at his party's Eastbourne conference.
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The Independent Online
The political prizes of continuing constitutional change could only be won if the Liberal Democrats were prepared to take risks, and to get involved in the "historic game" of working with others, Mr Ashdown told his party in the keynote conference speech.

Defying the carping of critics who dislike any hint of "cosying up" with Labour, Mr Ashdown won strong applause for a firm line folded into the traditional attacks on Labour and the Tories. But the biggest cheer of the speech went to a passage in which he promised to maintain the attack against Labour government spending cuts "that will fall on our schools and our hospital and our public services this winter".

Pointing out that it had been the Liberal Democrats who had highlighted the "black hole" in government spending, there was a roar of approval when Mr Ashdown added "and we will continue to do it day after day after day".

However, the reassurance that the Liberal Democrats would maintain critical independence and distinctive ideas prepared the ground for the main message of the day and the week - the need to co- operate with Labour, and break "the destructive tribalism" of British politics.

"Part of our mandate from May," he said "was to create a new style of politics - a more rational and constructive style of politics. We have called it constructive opposition.

"Cajoling, influencing, shaping but, yes if necessary vigorously opposing where the Government is wrong, but working with them where we agree and where it is in the nation's interest.

"Where we should co- operate, we will do so wholeheartedly. But where we must oppose, we will do so unflinchingly. Here is my prayer for the Parliament ahead. May we have the power to oppose what we must oppose - the courage to support what we must support - and the wisdom to know the difference.

"Yes, it is sometimes easier to shout than to talk; to trade insults than to shake hands; to confront than to converse. But if we are to make a new start in Britain we must tread the more difficult path.

"If the Prime Minister is serious, as I believe he is, about changing the culture of our politics, I will work with him on that. Because that is the way we can make a difference, just as we said we would."

Mr Ashdown warned that all was not going to be plain sailing. "No doubt we shall not always agree with every detail of the Government's proposals on constitutional reform and no doubt, not everything we do agree will match every dotted `i' and cross `t' of every Liberal Democrat policy. And that may mean compromises. And I will find that as tough as any of you." That passage of the speech was received in complete silence, but Mr Ashdown said the party could not play safe. "Complacency, self-satisfaction, timidity. These are the traps. An excessive concern for our own purity. An inability to distinguish the trivial from the vital. A natural desire for a quiet life. If because of these, we fail to play our part in the changes which are now happening, then our successes on May 1 could just as easily be, not a triumphant breakthrough, but a mere footnote of history - an event which appeared remarkable at the time but which in the end, changed nothing. I am utterly determined that that does not happen."

The leader told the representatives that he was a Liberal Democrat and could never be anything else. "But love this party as I do, I don't believe that just because we wear the same team colours, all that we say is always right and all that others say is always wrong."