Clegg to bombard voters with American-style automated calls

Nick Clegg will today "cold call" 250,000 key voters as he borrows a controversial American polling technique to get his message across to the electorate.

Households in 50 marginal constituencies will receive automated calls featuring recordings of the Liberal Democrat leader outlining his policies this evening, hours after his keynote speech closing the party's conference declares that "Labour is finished". Voters who stay on the line will be asked to give their views on key policy areas including health, education, tax and the environment.

Yesterday Liberal Democrat strategists shrugged off accusations that the early evening "nuisance calls" would backfire by coinciding with children's bedtimes, evening meals, televised Champions League clashes involving Manchester United, Arsenal and Celtic, and an episode of Coronation Street.

They claimed the scheme, inspired by hi-tech polling used by the Democrats in the US, had been favourably received by half of those targeted in pilots featuring the voice of the former party leader Lord Ashdown.

Danny Alexander, Mr Clegg's chief of staff, said: "It's a very effective way of gathering information back from the public." A party spokesman added: "This is another string to our bow of tools we can use to get our message across."

But the Labour MP Stephen Pound scoffed: "This isn't just a nuisance call – it shows how screamingly out of touch the Lib Dems are. Nick Clegg will probably get the wrong number and if Vince Cable has anything to do with it they will probably reverse the charge."

Voters cold-called by Mr Clegg will hear a 30-second recorded introduction summarising his speech to the Bournemouth conference today before being asked to use the telephone keypad to say whether they agree with the party's policies.

Mr Clegg will use his speech today to urge his party to "connect with people again". He will urge activists to knock on a million doors between now and the local and European elections next spring. He will attempt to capitalise on Labour's internal meltdown, declaring: "Politics has changed for ever. Labour is finished. It's over."

Mr Clegg will mock David Cameron's Tories as "blue Labour" inspired by Tony Blair, and insisting that they are a "say everything, do nothing party".

He will add: "The Liberal Democrats are now the only party that can deliver social justice, the only choice for anyone who wants a fairer Britain."

Following his success in persuading activists to back a tax-cutting agenda, he will tell the conference that nine out of 10 people would be better off under their plans. He will say: "I want this to be the most progressive, most redistributive tax plan ever put forward by a British political party."

Elsewhere at the conference yesterday, Chris Huhne, the party's home affairs spokesman, accused the Tories and Labour of "posturing about penalties" handed down to offenders. He said the only way to deter criminals was by putting more police on the beat. He also dismissed the Tories as a party with "no heart, no core values and no direction".

Simon Hughes, the party's president, claimed that Mr Cameron was a "con man" and that the rebranding of the Tories was "based on a deceit".

Today, the party will call for mentally ill patients to get care on a par with people suffering from physical ailments. A motion to be debated by delegates this morning argues that mental health patients "continue to suffer from unacceptable discrimination" in access to NHS services, arguing that everyone should be entitled to a "core package" of care.

Conference diary

* One of the key planks of Nick Clegg's appeal to the voters is boosting the basic state pension. It's a pity, therefore, that he doesn't seem to know what it is. An innocuous radio interview question – what is the current level of the pension? – turned disastrous for the Liberal Democrat leader. After a bit of waffle, he hazarded a figure of "about £30 a week".

Clang! It is actually £90.70 for a single person and £145.45 a week for a couple. Pension credits take the figures even higher. The gaffe will be a gift for the other parties keen to rubbish Mr Clegg's "man of the people" credentials. The Pensions minister, Mike O'Brien, mocked: "He must be living in an ivory tower."

* The Liberal Democrat health spokesman, Norman Lamb, could be said to lead a secret life of grime. Nothing to do with eradicating the hospital superbug MRSA, but he has developed an unlikely knowledge of grime – a form of urban music which mixes hip-hop and drum 'n' bass. It's all thanks to his entrepreneurial son, Archie, who founded a grime record label as a teenager.

* A conference fringe meeting was entitled NHS Foundation Trusts: What Next? The answer, apparently, is not much. Just two delegates and no speakers turned up. The event – "organised" by the NHS Confederation – was cancelled.

* For a man whose trademark policy is saving the world from asteroid damage with the help of a "cosmic condom", Lembit Opik's campaign to become party president isn't exactly making a deep impact with his colleagues. The party's chief of staff, Danny Alexander, tactfully insisted he had seen "one or two" backing Mr Opik. "Have you?" asked his fellow frontbencher Chris Huhne, incredulously. Meanwhile, if you can believe people would buy such things, the rival candidate Baroness Ros Scott's picture is the best-selling fridge magnet and badge on the party's merchandise stall.

Today's agenda

9.30am Debate on mental health

11.20am Debate on the collection of personal data

11.50am Party leader Nick Clegg's closing speech

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