Activists may press for tacit electoral deal: As the Liberal Democrats' conference approaches, Patricia Wynn Davies visits a seat they could regain - with help from Labour

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Indy Politics
SOMETHING approaching shock waves rippled through genteel Southport on 9 April as the incumbent MP, local Liberal veteran Ronnie Fearn, was despatched to political oblivion by a 31-year-old Tory challenger.

The Victorian resort had been a mass of yellow Liberal Democrat posters. 'Territorially, if you like, we won that one,' David Rimmer, party activist and Mr Fearn's election agent, said. However, the contrasting surprise and disappointment, even among the uncommitted and some Conservatives, was real.

Although the seat had been held since 1983 by Mr Fearn, latterly the Liberal Democrats' transport and housing spokesman, the town was and is conservative with a small 'c'. Mr Fearn fitted the bill: a former assistant bank manager, long-standing local roots, lengthy service on the local council and close involvement in local affairs. But fear of a Labour victory led electors to switch votes and cut short his parliamentary career.

'There were Tories who told Ronnie, 'I supported you last time but I couldn't this time - nothing personal, but I didn't want Kinnock to get in',' Mr Rimmer said.

In common with many areas where the party has clout, ousting the new MP, Matthew Banks, a former PR consultant, will depend in part on whether he lives up to his promises on local issues. Here, it is the suggested removal of Southport from Sefton Borough Council - widely resented as rule from dockland Bootle in spite of considerable Liberal Democrat influence - and the return to a Lancashire address after 18 years in Merseyside.

The other factor, naturally, is to do with Labour, which collected 5,637 votes in the general election - 2,574 more than the margin by which Mr Fearn, known by some as 'Mr Southport', lost his seat.

Mr Rimmer, a chief officer with Age Concern and a former director of social services, does not rule out an ad hoc arrangement under which Labour would not stand in the next election.

He does not believe the party will accept a formal electoral pact nationally, but says the constituency 'might accept some sort of tacit agreement involving a Liberal Democrat standing down elsewhere in return.

'You have got to be realistic. You are in politics to gain influence. You've got to get votes and you've got to win seats.'

He sees what he calls the Southport Labour Party intelligentsia - the university lecturers and schoolteachers - accepting such a deal because it might mean one less Tory MP. It could be crucial, he emphasises; if Mr Banks wins again, he will be in for life.

Mr Rimmer believes Labour has failed to embrace Britain's new, individualistic, property- owning society and the new set of problems all of that poses. Such a social profile is partly epitomised in Southport. No longer a preserve of the blue- rinse brigade, its still gracious Lord Street boulevard is the mecca of upmarket shopping in the North-west.

Balancing individual economic aspirations and personal freedoms with the wider needs of society is the party's aim. Mr Rimmer maintains it needs to work harder to achieve it.

What he most wants to see emerging from the Liberal Democrat conference in Harrogate, North Yorkshire, next week is 'a clear and unapologetic definition of a non-socialist alternative to the Tories'. He advocates having a debate about 'where we go', electoral pacts and other dealings with Labour. But he said this should not be allowed to wander on for too long, risking a loss of the Liberal Democrat identity accomplished so far.

'I want the clear definition to come out, because that's where Labour have made mistakes. They have lost their true vision.'

Reform of the voting system, strengthened local government and above all, the economy, are all key issues for the conference. But the party identity question is the most crucial, he said.

'There are enough policies. But somehow we don't get across to people the true identity. With the move of the Conservatives and Labour to the centre, it is harder. The party needs to show clearly that the market doesn't provide everything and that when things necessarily have to be done in a 'corporate society' manner there are positive factors - that you are neither taking people's liberty away from them nor unnecessarily increasing their taxes. The problem is that Major has come across to the middle line, stealing some of this. That's the problem and that's what we've got to pursue.'

----------------------------------------------------------------- Table: 1992 General Election ----------------------------------------------------------------- Banks, M R W (C) 26,081 47.0% Fearn, R C (LD) 23,018 41.5% King, J (Lab) 5,637 10.2% Walker, J (Grn) 545 1.0% Clements, G (NLP) 159 0.3% C majority 3,063 5.5% Electorate 71,443 Turnout 77.6% -----------------------------------------------------------------

(Photograph omitted)