A four-hour debate on strategy at the start of the party's federal conference in Harrogate produced a succession of warnings about the consequence of being 'tarred with the Labour brush' in the minds of voters and the need to persist with the 'pavement politics' style of campaigning which has proved successful at local government level.
However, some senior figures and veteran candidates argued that if Liberal Democrats refused to talk to other parties they would never achieve their political objectives.
Tom McNally, a former Labour MP and founder member of the SDP, urged members to face up to political reality. By the time of the next election, it would be nearly 30 years since any political party other than the Conservatives had had a working majority in Parliament.
'Our number one priority is to get rid of this Conservative government and I don't believe that we will do that by the politics of the Somme. I don't want to see in four years' time candidate after candidate coming up to explain the near misses while the Tories stay in power,' Mr McNally said.
'I'm not talking about pacts or deals, I am talking about keeping options open and having a dialogue. It would be a betrayal not just of ourselves but the millions who have suffered under this government if we did not undertake that dialogue and if we didn't strain every sinew to get rid of this government.'
The debate was sparked by Paddy Ashdown's so-called 'Chard' speech in May, in which he urged the party to begin a dialogue with other parties and people outside politics. Repeating his opposition to formal electoral pacts, he told a press conference that he had made the speech deliberately early 'because I knew it would take time to get the pluralist message across'.
Mr Ashdown said the voices raised in the debate against pacts showed that the Liberal Democrat election campaign was lost by Labour. 'Be absolutely clear,' he said, 'I have not the slightest intention of allying this party in any way with a Labour Party that remains unelectable, and the Labour Party is unelectable. The question is can Labour make the changes to enable them to participate in the process of constructing the new democracy Britain needs.'
Nigel Priestley, unsuccessful in April in the 'hopeful' constituency of Colne Valley, said an informal dialogue should begin straight away. Chris Davies, who lost in Littleborough and Saddleworth, said the party should not reject co-operation. 'The passageway beyond may be dark, but the alternative is to sit in a closed room and look at our navels.'
Dick Newby, former general secretary of the SDP and an aide to Mr Ashdown in the general election, said a formal pact had barely worked between the SDP and the Liberals and would be impossible with Labour, certainly before the next election, he said. But men and women of goodwill in the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and Labour could talk to each other on how to get rid of a 'disreputable and demeaning' government.
However Michael Ford, vice-chairman of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, warned: 'At present, except in a few seats, by far the most effective anti-Labour vote is a Conservative vote. The key to electing a non-Tory government is to prize that anti-Labour vote away from the Conservatives.'
Richard Younger-Ross, who stood in Teignbridge at the election, said it and other seats in the South-west could have been won but in the final week of the campaign voters became afraid of Labour. 'We must not compromise and we must not allow ourselves to be tarred with the brush of letting Labour in.'
Veteran activist Tony Greaves of Pendle, one of the architects of community politics, said that should still be base of the party's strategy. 'Let us under no circumstances compromise our independence of action,' he urged.
Questioned earlier about his support for the Prime Minister's policy on resisting devaluation of sterling, Mr Ashdown said he backed it readily. But he opposed the Government's view that it was enough to support the exchange rate mechanism. If Britain joined an independent central bank the public sector borrowing requirement could be raised by pounds 2bn and the money used to rebuild the country's infrastructure without losing the confidence of the markets, he said.
Today, the conference will discuss equal access to abortion in the NHS, the arts, economic recovery, the 'New Agenda' policy consultation paper and genetic engineering.
(Photograph omitted)Reuse content