Lib Dem Conference: Maclennan's proud boast: `Free to think dangerously '

The Liberal Democrats yesterday stepped up their attacks on Labour, with the party's president offering Tony Blair `wardrobes' full of policies. Anthony Bevins, Political Editor, reports.
Click to follow
Robert Maclennan, the Liberal Democrats' president, won a rare cheer of approval from rank and file representatives yesterday with a description of a Labour government devoid of substance and ideas.

With sections of the party exceedingly concerned that Paddy Ashdown is allowing the Liberal Democrats to be swallowed up by Labour, the leadership spent the day trying to mark out the independence of their territory.

They were helped by the intervention of Peter Mandelson, minister without portfolio, who used a newspaper article to warn Mr Ashdown that he was playing a dangerous game if he was serious about working with Labour while making "invalid criticisms" of government spending policy.

Mr Ashdown, who addresses the conference today told The Independent that he was "seriously relaxed" about the Mandelson intervention, saying: "I am delighted that people are beginning to understand, some more perfectly than others, what constructive opposition is about. There seem to be some in the Labour Party who still believe that constructive opposition is compliant opposition. It isn't, and it isn't going to be."

The independent spirit of the Liberal Democrat tradition was superbly carved out by Mr Maclennan, who told the conference that the party of ideas and abundant policy could help fill the Labour vacuum. If Labour wanted to steal the clothes of Liberal Democrat policy, he said, "we have wardrobes of clothes".

Mr Maclennan said Labour had won the election without much of a policy but with a vagueness sold with brilliance. "Labour offered a sort of bravura vacuum - everything was `new', `exciting', `challenging', `modern'. Four adjectives in search of a noun. Four attitudes looking for substance." But he warned that a complex world would not be met by saying those four words ever and again. There had to be the equivalent of Beveridge reports.

"The swan gliding over the water is lovely, but somebody has to do the feet. We are the party of the pamphlet, the working party, the report, the debate on the report.

"If you prick us we bleed ink - ink and ideas. Lots of us write. Many of us can read. We can also think because we are free to be outrageous. Not being part of government, we can think dangerously."

Mr Maclennan said the Liberal Democrats should become a powerhouse of political ideas.

However, he did not confine his criticism to Labour. He said that perhaps the Tory party was over. "The idea that the Conservatives might never govern again is seriously argued," he said. "The possibility that they might decline into an ideologically pure, burning bright English nationalist party is perfectly thinkable."

Last night, Malcolm Bruce, the party's Treasury spokes-man, reluctantly accepted part of the Government's own conclusion on the timetable for the single currency. Having previously preferred a 1999, first-wave entry for sterling, Mr Bruce told a Confederation of British Industry fringe meeting in Eastbourne that that now seemed "increasingly unlikely".