Rallying the troops for the ultimate test: Ashdown aims for positive impression

Conference season: As the party faithful gather for the last time before the election, Anthony Bevins looks at their hopes and fears
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Liberal Democrats - Brighton; 22-26 September.

Slogan: Take Courage for the Future

The big aim: To present a positive purpose to voting Liberal Democrat, by persuading people that theparty is distinct from the other two and has something different to offer.

There will be no encouragement of tactical voting; the message is that if the voters want a change in national politics, a vote for the Liberal Democrats is the sure-fire way of achieving that, because they would exert pressure on a Labour government to deliver its promises for constitutional change. However, ambivalence creeps in when senior Liberal Democrats are asked about Conservative candidates in marginal seats. Last week, one high-level source said: "If people can work out another way of getting rid of the Tories ..." then they might well vote Labour.

Who are these people? The happy mythological days of open-toed sandals, with socks, and cagoules, worn indoors, are long gone; purged by the influx of Social Democrats in suits. Local government success, and the power it has brought, has created a much more professional activist base

Stage management: The Liberal Democrats are traditionally useless at this. Issues like drugs, gay lib and prostitution seem to have the same magnetic appeal as they have for the tabloid newspapers that traditionally use such debates to depict the activists as a bunch of fruitcakes.

Disaster zones: The main agenda is as controlled as any party manager could dream of, with debates on issues like "Indicators of sustainable development"; "Conserving tomorrow"; "Investing in excellence"; and "Cleaning up the mess in politics." But there is space for two emergency motions where embarrassment might slip through. The media will also be hunting for diversionary stories about what role Mr Ashdown would play in a hung Parliament.

Policy initiatives: The Liberal Democrats are as good at recycling policy as they are at newsprint, glass and other waste. The debate on "Conserving tomorrow" includes reaffirmation of the pledge to phase in a carbon tax and a pounds 1bn a year investment in energy conservation; on education, the party promises "early years" schooling for all three and four-year-olds whose parents want it, along with "work to reduce" all primary school classes to fewer than 30 pupils. The housing policy paper offers a mortgage benefit for those on low incomes, funded by a phase-out of mortgage interest tax relief.

Low life: All conferences have their junkets and parties, but the Liberal Democrat conference directory contains a cornucopia of free food and drink that should attract political down-and-outs from miles around.

"Free buffet and wine" is being offered for a Monday lunchtime fringe meeting held by the European Movement; "free light breakfast" is on offer from the Direct Marketing Association and Royal Mail on Tuesday; and for those who believe there is no such thing as a free lunch, Boots the chemist and the BMA are offering competing fare on Tuesday, followed by free refreshments at evening meetings sponsored by the British Field Sports Society and the National Association of Head Teachers. Yet another lunch is on offer from the Worldwide Fund for Nature on Wednesday, but free-loaders might be advised to give the "free drinks and hot food" a miss on Wednesday, when the Police Federation sponsors a meeting on "What needs to be done to combat crime?"

Highlights: Late-night conversation with Paddy Ashdown, the only party leader with the stamina or inclination to go to the conference hotel bar for a drink with party members, and - of course - his speech on Tuesday.

In an attempt to deflect attacks on Mr Ashdown as a "one-man band", the party is also trying to promote Baroness (Shirley) Williams and Sir David Steel, but in an age of presidential political combat - where leaders are presented as the sight bite for party - Mr Ashdown will grab the attention.