Lib Dem leadership contenders battle for the green vote

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Sir Menzies Campbell, Chris Huhne and Simon Hughes presented themselves as the man who would put green issues at the heart of the party's programme to reflect public concern over climate change and combat David Cameron's attempt to rebrand the Tories as environment-friendly.

As the candidates did battle at a hustings meeting in Manchester last night, Liberal Democrat insiders predicted that 20 per cent of those party members likely to vote were still making up their minds. Voting ends tomorrow week, with the result announced the next day.

Rival camps reported that many party members were waiting until after the final leadership debate of the campaign in London on Thursday, which is sponsored by The Independent. The Liberal Democrats said the event would be the largest hustings of the election, with the three candidates fielding questions from 1,000 party members and readers of The Independent.

Although there is common ground between the three, each stressed his own green credentials. Mr Huhne, who claims to have put the issue on the map with a call for green taxes to redistribute wealth, dismissed criticism from Sir Menzies that his call for a hike in petrol duty would harm people living in rural areas dependent on using their cars.

Mr Huhne said: "Ninety per cent of people live in communities of 100,000 or more. It is an overwhelmingly urban society. We must not let the rural tail wag the urban dog." He said the problems in rural areas could be alleviated through lower road tax payments.

Arguing that voters would support green taxes, Mr Huhne added: "We do not need an overall increase in public spending or taxation, but we do need to be open and honest about the changes in taxation that are necessary to get people to change their behaviour to help the environment."

Sir Menzies warned that the expansion of air travel would wipe out reductions in carbon dioxide emissions achieved by other means.

He told the Manchester meeting: "The consequences of global warming are too high a price for the world to pay so that a few can pay a weekend visit to their second homes abroad." He proposed that the growth in passenger numbers should not exceed the savings in carbon dioxide emissions achieved through technological improvements.

Sir Menzies pledged: "Transport will under my leadership be an area for radical change based on the premise that it must make a real positive contribution to economic success and environmental sustainability."

Mr Hughes told the meeting that, as party leader, he would propose radical action. He said: "I was campaigning on the environment before David Cameron knew how to spell the word. We need a leader with a proven track record to contrast with the Tories' shallow conversion to the issue."