Ashdown gambles on change of direction: Lib Dems aim to sharpen image

A CONCERTED attempt to sharpen the image and policies of the Liberal Democrats in the run-up to a series of election challenges was launched yesterday by Paddy Ashdown, the party leader.

A calculated gamble by Mr Ashdown to omit attacks on the Government from a keynote speech at the Cardiff spring conference follows four months of intensive back-room work on shaping a more distinctive party identity.

The speech, leaving 'the purely negative attacks to Labour' and dripping with references to education, signals Mr Ashdown's intention to construct a far stronger domestic profile, after months of being immersed in the detail of the war in Bosnia.

Mr Ashdown told delegates that the country knew what was wrong. 'What they want to hear is what we are going to do about it, how we are going to put things right.'

Mr Ashdown's quest for a more distinctive role in the world of practical politics - in the wake of his tour around Britain and his book, Beyond Westminster - sees him relegate the once weighty issue of electoral reform to a single reference to 'fair votes'.

The Liberal Democrats are likely to score well in the council elections on 5 May and win the Eastleigh by-election by exploiting deep disenchantment with the Government's policies. But party managers are also acutely aware of the two main parties' favourite weapon, that voters do not know what Liberal Democrats stand for. The Tories and Labour plan to play that card heavily in the forthcoming contests.

Spotlighting education as the big issue is calculated to help to lift the party from its primary status as repository for the protest vote. The party's strength in local government means that Liberal Democrats can exert real influence over budgets.

The message that education is the key to three aims - providing opportunity, investing in tomorrow, and cleaning up 'the mess that is undermining our democracy' - came as Mr Ashdown said: 'It is simply illogical for Michael Howard (the Home Secretary) to say that he can cut crime while his Cabinet colleagues are forcing councils to cut their education budgets.'

The battle against crime began not on the streets but in the classroom, he said.

Alongside the 1992 election commitment to pounds 2bn a year extra education spending, costing an extra 1p on income tax, Mr Ashdown's list of 'what Liberal Democrats will do' includes converting dole payments into subsidies for employers to take on the long- term unemployed.

There would also be childcare vouchers to help single parents trapped on benefit into work, and freedom for local councils to spend sale receipts on creating jobs in home building.

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