Ashdown plans to embrace other opposition parties

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The Independent Online
PADDY ASHDOWN is planning to use the Liberal Democrats' annual conference to broaden his party's appeal and embrace supporters in the Labour and Green parties.

The agenda to be published on Monday for the Harrogate conference from 13 to 17 September will show that the key debate will centre on the party's future direction, following the election defeat.

It will be coupled with a consultative manifesto on a range of policies, including the 'green' agenda, proportional representation and protecting consumers from privatised monopoly powers.

The Liberal Democrat leader came under fire from colleagues for discussing the realignment of the opposition parties and was accused of preparing for an electoral pact with Labour - a charge he denies.

However, the leadership believes that, following the fourth successive Tory election victory, the other parties need to engage in a greater exchange of ideas to provide a more united opposition against the Conservatives.

The party rank and file have endorsed the leadership approach in a questionnaire, giving Mr Ashdown the support he needs to continue with the strategy.

Mr Ashdown's critics will argue that, in discussing cross-party politics, he is waving the white flag and admitting that the Liberal Democrats can have no impact on politics on their own. The party leadership insists that, in spite of the election result, party morale is holding up, and membership has risen from a peak of 100,000 in April to 103,000.

The BBC Newsnight programme is organising a debate for the conference week which will include a Labour frontbencher and a leading member of the Greens. There are no direct talks with Labour about pacts, but the Liberal Democrat leadership is hoping that Labour members will be prepared to engage in debate.

'It depends on what the Smith leadership does,' one source said. 'It depends on what they do about proportional representation, whether they want to oppose Maastricht, whether they are serious about embracing market economics.

'The message is that we will have to involve a lot more people who may be in other parties. We will be saying that the fourth Tory victory is a problem, but it is also an opportunity because it highlights the fact that the system as it currently stands operates in the Tories' favour and that Labour has not got an alternative majority. We want to show that we are listening, and that the conference will open out to others outside the party.'