The Liberal Democrats in Harrogate: Ashdown victory as delegates back 'Labour links'

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PADDY ASHDOWN got the go- ahead yesterday to open a dialogue with the Labour Party after conference delegates decided by a large majority that the Liberal Democrats should work with other parties and those outside politics.

An amendment supported by anti-Labour factions including Liz Lynne, the vehemently anti-socialist MP for Rochdale, was defeated by 594 votes to 341, bringing to an end dissent over the issue that had prompted claims that Mr Ashdown moved too fast in calling for a realignment of politics to oppose the Tories.

Mr Ashdown said afterwards: 'I am delighted at the outcome. It is a victory for the party, for reality and especially for party unity. The party has dealt with an important decision with maturity and courage.

'We now have a party with a very clear idea of what it must do in the future and which is united in its determination to succeed.'

The vote will consolidate the co-operation and dialogue that already exists informally at local level and, this week, on the conference fringe, and opens the way to formal dialogue with John Smith, the Labour leader.

It firmly rules out electoral pacts or deals but does not prevent informal constituency arrangements under which Labour might agree not to field a candidate - a scenario urged earlier this week by the Liberal Democrat elder statesman Sir David Steel.

While yesterday's decision clears the air in the party, it is unlikely to spawn speedy discussions with Labour. Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat president, said: 'It is unlikely to lead to significant movements this side of the 1993 Labour Party conference when the attitudes towards links with the trade unions, internal party democracy and UK constitutional reform are clearer.'

In his conference address today, Mr Ashdown will launch an onslaught on the Prime Minister's inactivity during the summer over the economy and events in Bosnia, while taking a softer line on the perceived defaults of Mr Smith. Mr Ashdown will also emphasise the need for the party to continue to garner new members and develop policy.

The decision gives the blessing to the party developing and debating ideas 'by working with people of all parties and at all levels who believe that fundamental change in the governance of Britain and the building of a sustaintable economy are the keys to all other necessary changes.

'Where issues of common concern can be identified, Liberal Democrats should continue to promote and participate in appropriate campaigns.'

Ms Lynne, who argued for dialogue with people outside the party but not with other political parties, said: 'No deals, no pacts should be stressed and stressed and stressed again. I'm sorry it was ever brought up in the first place.'

Representatives comprehensively rejected an amendment welcoming 'moves by members of the Labour Party and others to help build a consensus for fair votes and other constitutional reforms, European unity and a sustainable liberal economy'.

But due to the careful drafting by the party high command of the main conference motion and principal amendment, anti-Labour feeling, so evident in Sunday's consultative session, was muted.

Martin King, of Adur council, in West Sussex, said the party's response to continued Tory rule could not be to set up an exclusive debating society. Simon Hughes, MP for Southwark & Bermondsey, who moved the crucial compromise amendment, said: 'I don't want liberal democracy, like Nelson Mandela for so long, to be imprisoned for 20 years.'