Liberal Democrats' Conference: Mutual contempt stands in the way of co-operation: Jonathan Foster reports on why, in one region, Liberal and Labour choose to align with the Tories than with each other

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The Independent Online
ONLY one political dynamic prevents a pact between Liberal Democrats and Labour in south Lancashire - intense mutual contempt.

The fabric of social welfare provision to which both parties aspire in the old cotton belt comprises similar threads. But on Oldham and Rochdale councils, each party has chosen to work with the Conservatives rather than realign the Left through a local alliance.

Liberal Democrats hold 23 Rochdale seats and run the authority in an 'informal pact' with the 14 Tories. Paul Rowen, the Liberal Democrat leader, believes discussion of closer association with Labour is 'academic'. 'The reality is that Conservatives are the opposition and Labour is the competition. There will always be a right-of-centre party in British politics, but we have to usurp Labour to succeed.'

In Oldham, Labour's 29 councillors need the votes of seven Conservatives to maintain control. John Battye, the Labour leader, believes the culture of local politics prevents co-operation with the Liberal Democrats.

'We always seem to get drawn in to personality clashes. I spend much of my time advising members of my group which solicitors to instruct after they have been defamed by the Liberals. It is easier to work with the Tories. The Liberal Democrats are obsessively individualistic.'

The pact in Rochdale gives Pamela Hawton's Tory group chairmanship of two important committees. She believes the Liberal Democrats would have most to lose from moving closer to Labour.

'They can only succeed in the middle ground. Move to one side or the other and they'll be swallowed. The only virtue in politics is to stay in power, and the realpolitik in Rochdale is that the Liberal Democrats can persuade us more easily than they can Labour.'

Oldham Tories hold a view of local-government Liberal Democrats widespread among Labour and the Conservatives in the North.

'They accuse everybody bar themselves of being corrupt and secretive and in hock to the unions or big business. It's the politics of abuse,' a senior Lancashire Tory official said.

'When the new parliamentary boundaries are drawn, there will be a marginal in both Oldham and Rochdale areas. All three parties will fight tooth and nail, no matter what their leaders say.'

Both Liberals and Labour in the North-west believe any realignment of the Left will come because of the voting behaviour of the electorate, not the choices put before it.

Mr Rowen said: 'Our experience is that, in its urban heartland, the Labour Party is reactionary and repressive. In power, Labour abuse their position. As soon as the trade unions get a Labour government, they will demand their pound of flesh. They are an unsavoury bunch who will do anything possible to gain power.'

Mr Battye returns the compliment: 'I've fought Liberals all my political life. What a tangled web they weave in order to deceive the electorate. They have voted six different ways on a local issue about three playing fields.'

Bob Wheeler, an Oldham Liberal Democrat who has lost the whip, sums up this antipathy: 'There are too many power seekers for a pact to work.'