Elections 1994: Ashdown advocates powers for citizens

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SWEEPING reforms of Parliament, earmarking of taxes, and new powers for ordinary citizens to take control of their lives and communities were proposed last night by Paddy Ashdown, leader of the Liberal Democrats.

He claimed the challenge facing politicians was to 'rebalance' rather than 'reverse' attempts by the Conservatives since 1979 to shift power from producers and providers to consumers.

But warming once again to his theme of the 'dangerous' gulf between electors and politicians, Mr Ashdown said that politicians must be 'radical, reforming, revolutionary', to restore the 'all-time low' esteem with which they are viewed by the public.

Giving the Williamson lecture at the University of Stirling, he said: 'We need to swallow our pride and work together. Politics is not a sprint but a marathon and we need to run the race with the people rather than leaving them as helpless spectators.'

Mr Ashdown stressed the importance of transparency in the use of taxes, including earmarking taxes for specific service, and argued that eventually public spending should aspire to the 'clarity and symmetry of a road toll'.

He also urged reform of the 'antiquated working of Parliament to turn it from a museum-piece of obscurity into a market place of ideas - a business-like forum with sane hours, sensible debates and genuine democratic power'.

Calling for an 'opening of the floodgates of power to send it whooshing down from Westminster to every crevice of society, he paid a qualified tribute to the Conservatives' attempts to disperse power in ways which 'appeal to a more liberal frame of mind than that of John Major . . .'

He cited the example of GP fundholding which had shifted power from hospital managers and consultants towards GPs and patients. He added: 'The challenge is not to reverse the process but to rebalance it to correct the ideological biases.'