Look out Cherie and Norma - Shirley's back

Lib Dems want her to win the female vote, writes Stephen Castle
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The Independent Online
SHIRLEY Williams, one of the gang of four who left Labour in 1981 to found the SDP, will return to the political centre stage this week as part of a new Liberal Democrat strategy to woo women voters.

Baroness Williams of Crosby will be part of a core of star campaigners designed to take some of the media load from Paddy Ashdown, the party leader, during the general election.

In 1992, critics said the party's campaign focused too much on its leader who travelled a reputed 55,000 miles and appeared in countless media interviews.

As Liberal Democrats gather for their conference this week in Brighton, Mr Ashdown's strategists hope the return of Lady Williams will help to create the image of a softer, more listening style of politics - in contrast to the supposed authoritarianism of the Labour leader, Tony Blair. That is code for attracting more women voters who, the party believes, are turned off by the slanging matches of Labour and the Conservatives.

But it will also bring back some familiar memories. Inevitably Lady Williams will have to live down her reputation for unpunctuality when she arrives in Brighton from a packed Harvard teaching schedule on Wednesday - a day after Mr Ashdown's speech.

Even a belated arrival will be welcomed by party members. Strategists believe that Lady Williams can help break down barriers between politicians and the voters.

Lady Williams last week said that, in 1992, Des Wilson, the then campaign manager, actively discouraged her from taking a more visible role.

Speaking from Harvard's Kennedy School of Goverment in Massachusetts, Lady Williams said Tony Blair was "unquestionably a remarkable man who has been courageous and radical in his attempt to modernise the Labour Party".

But she added that "the worry is that it is not clear what the Labour Party regards as its priorities. It's clear he's a genuine radical; his real problem is that he's running so scared of the media, he will not commit himself to anything."

Lady Williams argues the Liberal Democrats should demand tough commitments on four central policy areas before agreeing to do a deal with a Labour government. These are: maintaining high-quality public services, creating jobs, reforming the constitution (including electoral reform) and playing a positive role in Europe.

She added: "In so far as Labour is prepared to put them high on the list and work for them for two administrations, we should be with them all the way. I don't think we should be willing to accept no commitments in exchange for a couple of Cabinet posts and junior ministerial jobs."

The Liberal Democrats believe that by targeting winnable constituencies, they could take as many as 40 seats at the next election. And the championing of key policy themes chimes with Mr Ashdown's strategy of trying to convince the voters that his party is distinct and relevant, however relations develop with Labour. Lady Williams says public services, like education and transport, are particularly important issues to women voters.

Lady Williams' experience of the Labour Party also leads her to expect Mr Blair may soon need allies. She said: "I think Mr Blair may find himself needing the Liberal Democrats. I think he might find himself with a less pliant set of followers than he has enjoyed until now."

Mr Ashdown's campaign manager, Lord Holme of Cheltenham is keen to promote her and several Liberal Democrats including Menzies Campbell, Charles Kennedy, Sir David Steel, Malcolm Bruce, Jim Wallace and Alan Beith. Two MPs, Emma Nicholson, who defected from the Tories, and Diana Maddocks, will be promoted.

On education, an area of tension within Labour, Lady Williams reiterated her commitment to comprehensive education, a cause she championed as Secretary of State from 1976-9. "I still believe in comprehensive schools, because my view is that no country can be competitive unless it educates the vast majority of its population and not just an elite, to higher education.

"I believe in raising standards for all kids and that we have to face up to sacking poor teachers but paying better those who have shown abilities in the classroom. I think we are wasting time by becoming so bound up in the issue of comprehensive versus selective."

Mr Ashdown, who speaks on Tuesday, reconfirmed his commitment to proportional representation. Liberal Democrat private polling shows Mr Ashdown the most popular of the three party leaders, particularly in the area of target seats.