Ashdown seeks to mobilise the 'lost' electorate

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ANY REALIGNMENT of opponents of the Conservatives must include people outside the mainstream political spectrum, Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader, said yesterday as he pledged his commitment to a new 'pluralist' brand of politics.

Repeating his opposition to electoral pacts as a way of avoiding a fifth successive Tory victory, Mr Ashdown said: 'It's mobilising those people who are fed up to the back teeth with politics that is far more important than relationships and discussions with other parties. That's where your electoral force will come from.

'We are not interested in establishing the old duopoly in different form, Tories on the one side and Lib/Lab on the other. What I am interested in, what the party is interested in, is moving into a more pluralist system of politics of the sort we have operating in almost every other advanced democracy, where parties can and do compete but are also able from time to time to co-operate.

'That may be difficult for people to understand but it is part and parcel of the new politics that is now emerging and we are determined to be the vehicle for it.'

Mr Ashdown told a Westminster news conference that the SDP had very nearly succeeded in 'breaking the mould'. Seventy per cent of its strength had come from people who had never been involved in politics.

Central to the strategy to break the deadlock of the traditional Westminster-dominated approach is Challenge, Opportunity and Responsibility, a discussion document drawn up by the Liberal Democrats' 'New Agenda' working group. Due for debate at the party conference at Harrogate on Monday, the paper reaffirms the commitment to the free market and environmental protection while attempting to break new ground on welfare and taxation.

The paper urges an end to the notion of 'passive' receipt of welfare, saying: 'When acting to influence the shape of society, the balance of government actions should be more weighted towards enlarging opportunities than towards redistributing wealth for its own sake.'

Tax should likewise aim to provide a wider distribution of opportunities, and allow maximum freedom to individuals while penalising polluters. The way taxation is explained is also crucial, the paper says.

Mr Ashdown said the death- knell to Labour's election chances was its high taxation policy. Paradoxically, opinion polls had shown the Liberal Democrat policy of a penny on income tax to improve education was one of the most popular. 'We question whether in the present climate people are not prepared to pay for others to be more comfortable in poverty, though they are prepared to pay for routes out of poverty, out of entrapment,' he said. 'We have to find a new way of explaining the purposes of taxation if we are going to ask people to pay money out of their own pockets.'

The paper dismisses Labour as too tied to producer interests and the Conservatives' Citizen's Charter as a poor substitute for the 'full agenda of citizenship'.