LIB DEMS IN GLASGOW: Ashdown condemns 'smoke and mirrors' tricks for votes

Stephen Goodwin reports on a leader eager to confront an era of change
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Paddy Ashdown yesterday offered the Liberal Democrats as a lever of change on a future government, pursuing a sharply focused agenda of improvements in education, constitutional reform and a sustainable economy.

The biggest cheer in the packed Glasgow Conference Centre was for his promise to retain public control of Railtrack. He said if more than lip- service was to be paid to the environment it would mean more tax on gas- guzzling cars, road-pricing in congested cities and transfer of investment from roads to public transport.

"The fact, however uncomfortable, is that our cars are choking our country, choking our children. And everyone knows it." Asthma prescriptions now cost the NHS two and a half times as much as 10 years ago - pounds 350m a year.

Mr Ashdown wrote off the chance of a Conservative election victory, but said Labour was so frightened of scaring the electorate it would not confront the need for radical change.

"What we have to fear is that things should stay the same." It would be so easy to duck investing in education for a few more years, to dodge the challenge of Europe, to shy away from cleaning up the mess in politics, and so easy to carry on polluting the environment, ignoring poverty and standing by as nationalism and intolerance swelled abroad.

"The people who will pay the price for this are the next generation. And it will be a very high price."

Mr Ashdown said Labour now seemed as keen to play the three-card tax trick on the electorate as the Conservatives. "That means the next election is set to become a competition of smoke and mirrors between Labour and the Conservatives as to who can offer the most, say the least, hide the truth best." Deceiving the electorate about tax was not a game the Liberal Democrats intended to play, he said.

"The fact is that taxes are the subscription charge we pay to live in a civilised society. If you want decent public services, then you have to pay for them." But he said that under the Liberal Democrats no one would be asked to pay tax without being told exactly where their money was going.

Mr Ashdown's priority remained education. He reiterated commitments to pre-school education for every three- and four-year-old, guaranteed training for everyone between 16 and 19 and opportunities for every adult to re-train. Meeting those promises would need an extra pounds 2bn -"an extra penny on income tax, if necessary, to give our children the best possible start in life and to give Britain the best possible chance for the next century".

At the root of Britain's failures of the last 50 years lay its rotten political system - unrepresentative, over-centralised, secretive and arrogant, the Lib Dems' leader said.

Parliament had to be dragged into the 20th century, quangos cut down to size and made accountable, the curtain of secrecy torn down and individual liberties safeguarded with a Bill of Rights. He reiterated pledges of a Senedd for Wales and a Scottish Parliament.

"The only guarantee that these great reforms are not lost in timidity, or the tangle of parliamentary obstruction, lies in Liberal Democrat votes and Liberal Democrat seats. I'd hoped that Labour, like us, would stand firm on this. Instead, they seem half-hearted, timid, even in retreat."

Labour had back-tracked on regional assemblies, abandoned fair votes for a Welsh assembly and instead of making the House of Lords democratic were planning the most powerful quango in the land.

"Frankly, when it comes to good government, I would rather rely on the serendipitous opinion of the illegitimate progeny of past kings' mistresses, than the appointees of a modern British prime minister."

Mr Ashdown said that once again the Conservatives were preparing to buy their way back to power with tax bribes. Instead they should be investing in Britain's future. But the economy was not just about statistics. In the end it was about people. A nation was not wealthy if a fifth of its population were trapped in poverty, if fear of crime touched every house and if the economic potential of three million of its people was wasted.

"For fifty years, British politicians, of both Left and Right have cherished illusions and ignored realities. Expectations have been raised, only for hopes to be dashed. And so now disillusionment and fatalism gnaw at our national self-confidence. But it doesn't have to be like this."

Mr Ashdown said that twice before in this century the Liberal Democrats had helped to drive change. In 1906 they led a broad coalition in the first radical reforming government of the century and in 1945 it was the ideas of Liberals such as Beveridge and Keynes which helped to rebuild Britain after the war. "Now, at the end of the century, it is time for us to play that role again. Beveridge's five giants are still there, undefeated: Want, Disease, Squalor, Ignorance, Idleness."