Liberal Democrats' Conference: Party embarrassed by defections

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The Independent Online
THE Liberal Democrats were hit by two embarrassing defections to Labour yesterday, the final day of their annual conference.

Tony Armstrong, 37, who stood as a parliamentary candidate in Coventry South East in April 1992, announced his intention to defect as Paddy Ashdown was due to make his keynote speech.

Mr Armstrong said: 'Labour is now the only party that can defeat the Tories and return prosperity to this area. I was profoundly disturbed by what I discovered about the Liberal Democrats. They have no coherent strategy or approach and little internal discipline.'

David Brown, a Liberal Democrat councillor on Wigan Metropolitan Council, later said he was also joining Labour. Mr Brown, who represents the Langtree ward, was the fourth Liberal Democrat to switch to the council's ruling Labour group in the past three years.

Napier Penington, president of Coventry Liberal Democrats, said: 'As far as we are concerned Mr Armstrong gave up active politics two years ago.' Matthew Taylor, chairman of campaigns and communications, said the exit of such an inactive member was no loss and produced a list of 10 councillors, agents and activists who had defected to the Liberal Democrats over the past year.

But the defections are embarrassing for Mr Ashdown, the party leader, who despite the buffeting over the minimum wage, tax and cannabis, succeeded in making 'talking to Labour' a respectable issue.

An equally clear understanding has also been reached over the need to maintain attacks on Labour at local level. That view had been strongly pressed at a fringe meeting by Liz Lynne, the fiercely anti-Labour MP for Rochdale, and even by Simon Hughes, the pro-dialogue MP for Southwark and Bermondsey, where Labour is a traditional enemy.

Two more senior colleagues, Charles Kennedy and Robert Maclennan, appeared yesterday to endorse what Mr Ashdown yesterday called making 'common cause with others to achieve the best for the future'.

But Mr Ashdown said in his speech: 'I am delighted that the Labour Party seems at last to be recognising the importance of pluralism. I just wish they practised it in some of their rotten inner-city boroughs once in a while.'

Mr Ashdown may never convince all the parliamentary party that the common cause approach is worthwhile. Malcolm Bruce, the treasury spokesman, said Mr Ashdown's speech showed that 'what will determine the scale and pace of change is the strength of the Liberal Democrat vote and representation. Until Labour says 'we believe in PR (proportional representation) and we believe in making a democratic revolution', it's a waste of time, and I think we should stop wasting our breath'.

Those who support Mr Ashdown's move to explore common ground appeared to believe yesterday's stance well-judged. A former SDP activist said: 'We'd have been laughed at if he'd started dictating terms.'

(Photograph omitted)