Liberal Democrats' Conference: Ashdown crowns party agenda with Commons reform: Leader lays out programme for radical changes under a minority government

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The Independent Online
REFORM of the House of Commons will be a key part of the Liberal Democrat manifesto for the next general election, Paddy Ashdown made plain yesterday.

The Commons was 'out of date, out of tune with the country and out of touch with the people it is supposed to serve', the Liberal Democrat leader told the closing session of the conference in Brighton.

Dealing cautiously with relations with Labour, he offered the Liberal Democrats as a party capable of holding a minority government to a programme of radical change.

'We have enough confidence in our own strength to make common cause with others to achieve the best for the future,' he said.

'Just think how damaging it would be for democracy if the disaster of this long period of one-party rule was followed by disillusionment with what follows.'

Mr Ashdown feared a government empty of ideas and devoid of reforming radicalism, one which did favours for its friends rather than responding to the voters who paid the country's bills and which continued to avoid whole-hearted commitment to Europe.

What he hoped for was a government capable of creating a Britain where excellent education made everyone employable, where the environment was cared for like the nation's garden and where, 'at last, we become citizens in our own land, not subjects of the State'.

It was the Liberal Democrats that would make the difference between these contrasting futures for Britain.

Acknowleging the embarrassments of a week in which activists defeated the leadership on the decriminalisation of cannabis and a mimimum wage and debated abolishing the monarchy, Mr Ashdown said: 'I may not have got my way once or twice . . . But I am certain of one thing. The quality of our democracy in this party is more important that the occasional discomfort of the party leadership.'

Setting out the party's broad policy objectives, he said education was the essential precondition for Britain's success. Every child must have the best possible start, with guaranteed pre-school education. The Liberal Democrats had said where the money would come from - an extra 1p in the pound on income tax if necessary - and challenged the other parties to do the same.

Mr Ashdown said the sole aim of government policy now was not to fund investment in the British economy but 'to fund tax cuts to save Conservative jobs at the next election'. He wanted to see a strong, competitive, flexible, enterprise economy, founded on skills and innovation, sustained by long-term investment and driven forward by vibrant small businesses.

The economy should be 'supported by a government which acts to create stability - not just through the independence of the Bank of England, but also through savings and investment targets for steady long-term growth'.

Acknowledging that tax had been a big issue during the week, Mr Ashdown said he did not believe people would be ready to believe promises unless the party was prepared to be honest about the costs. 'That is why the Liberal Democrats will go into the next general election with a clear-costed 'menu with prices'.'

The party was going to have to decide its spending priorities and long-term goals, but some principles of tax policy had been established. 'The Liberal Democrats will not be a high-tax party, but we are determined to be a fair-tax party,'

After reiterating promises of parliaments for Wales and Scotland and voting reform, Mr Ashdown said no programme could be complete without reform of the most antiquated institution of all - the House of Commons. 'Isn't it extraordinary that, to conduct the nation's business, we have to behave in a way which would not be tolerated in any classroom?'

Success in a modern society was based on partnership and teamwork. 'But the House of Commons is based on institutionalised confrontation and it would rather die than share a decision with someone else.'

Labour wanted to inherit the Commons rather than change it, he warned.' So let it be the Liberal Democrats who make it clear in our next manifesto that we are determined to drag the Commons, kicking and screaming if necessary, out of the last century and into the next one.'

Turning to the European Union, Mr Ashdown said the International Governmental Conference of 1996 must define which powers should be exercised by local councils, regional assemblies, governments and EU institutions.

The Liberal Democrats would publish their own proposals for the IGC and discuss them with the electorate, he said, challenging John Major to do the same. 'Our future in Europe is far too important to be treated as a private quarrel with the Conservative Party.' He warned that the next decade in Europe could be 'as turbulent and dangerous' as any this century. Future conflicts would be between ethnic, tribal and religious groups rather than countries. 'Bosnia writ large in the chaos of the collapsed Soviet Empire. Only the difference will be that this time the warlords will have access to nuclear weapons.'

Praising the conference for toughening defence strategy, he said if the events he feared came in the East, all the petty fears of Maastricht would vanish overnight. 'Western Europe will lock itself together to create a tight island of security and stability at the western edge of a sea of chaos and war.'

Even if this did not happen, it remained the case that every penny spent on defence was better spent in co-ordination with European allies.