Kennedy offers unhappy Tories a 'natural home'

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Indy Politics

Charles Kennedy, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, invited Conservatives disillusioned with the election of Iain Duncan Smith as Tory leader to join his party, guaranteeing them a "very warm welcome."

In a speech to 2,000 Liberal Democrat delegates yesterday, Mr Kennedy urged activists to engage with "people who no longer feel that the Conservative party offers them a home". The party "faces an historic opportunity simply to step up a league on the domestic political scene", he said. Disaffected Labour supporters "who voted for change but are so sadly disappointed" would also find a "natural home" with the Liberal Democrats.

In an address that had been rewritten up to 20 times in the past week, Mr Kennedy told delegates the party must raise its game to meet the increased expectations of voters. "People out there are looking and paying attention to us and they are taking us seriously," Mr Kennedy said. "We have to be up to the seriousness of the task, the challenge and the opportunity that flows from that." He called on activists to become more professional while not losing sight of basic Liberal Democrat principles, such as respect for "liberty, democracy and diversity.

"This raising of our game must apply to every level of our party, whether at Westminster or in other parliaments, assemblies or local councils," he said. "It must apply to our policy, to our recruitment of members, to our fund-raising, to our campaigns."

The party would be judged by voters at the next election on its ability to deliver proposals for better public services, he said. Mr Kennedy refused to rule out private-finance solutions to improve the provision of health care and pensions, reassuring those who feared that the party was drifting too far to the left into territory vacated by Labour. He said that the interests of the people should come ahead of the producer.

But he reassured supporters that under his leadership, the party would "never, never, never ever put profit before transport safety or health or education".

In a clear softening of the party's unbridled enthusiasm for Brussels, which has been evolving over several months, Mr Kennedy said there was no contradiction between support for Britain and a belief in co- operation in Europe. "We are firm Europeans, and we are firm patriots as well, and there is no contradiction between the two."

Mr Kennedy adopted a muted tone to his address in response to the terrorist attacks on America. The party leader admitted he had seriously considered cancelling the conference but was now relieved that he had allowed the annual event to proceed.

The party leader gained a standing ovation when he spoke of the gravity of the human-itarian situation while stressing the party's support for a global solution to the crisis. "Pity the poor people of Afghanistan, with whom we have no quarrel whatsoever," he said.

"The real lesson of September 11, staring us all in the face, is that isolationism just doesn't work ... The best way to solve international problems, is through international agreement, international law, international co-operation."

In a warning to David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, over plans to introduce compulsory identification cards, he said terrorism should not be used as an excuse to undermine civil liberties. "Liberties lost tend to be liberties hard to recapture. The message from our conference is this: in the weeks and months to come, wherever civil liberties are con-cerned, tread with care, tread with care"

Meanwhile, the Labour Party will end its conference on Wednesday next week because of the recall of Parliament on Thursday. The Tories meet in Blackpool from 8-10 October.