The Liberal Democrats in Harrogate: Kennedy seeks to prevent rifts over links with Labour

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Indy Politics
CHARLES KENNEDY, the president of the Liberal Democrats, yesterday sought to head off damaging disagreements in today's key debate over links with Labour, warning the party of the need for a strategy to counteract a deep vein of Thatcherism that still ran through the country.

Though a sceptic on the eventual outcome of any informal 'dialogue' with Labour, still less any pact, Mr Kennedy implicitly urged support for the stance of Paddy Ashdown and other senior party figures who believe the current political deadlock can only be broken by widening the debate to include other parties and those outside mainstream politics.

Implying that hopes of electoral reform would be pipe-dreams while opposition politics remained in disarray, Mr Kennedy said: 'We have always contended that to reform the United Kingdom you have to reform the system of politics.

'Now perhaps the question is one stage removed from even that: namely, that to reform the system of politics you are first going to have to reform opposition politics itself. Not to tie our feet in ribbons about hypothetical, undeliverable political pacts. But to begin to articulate a distinct post- election stance, to begin to get our thinking straight. And to do it calmly and cautiously.'

The prospect of even cautious moves towards discussions with Labour was met with dismay by some Liberal Democrat MPs yesterday, however, and renewed concern that Mr Ashdown was moving too fast.

Malcolm Bruce, trade and industry spokesman, said a permanent dialogue would give the Tories a chance to say voting Liberal Democrat was voting for Labour. 'Paddy's style is to go out in front and see the extent to which the party will follow him,' he said.

Don Foster, education spokesman, said: 'I don't think it is in the best interests for us to promote it (discussions). We can't afford for it to be seen as a Liberal Democrat gimmick.'

The conference motion drafted to reflect the mood of Sunday's consultative session, which produced a backlash against a close alliance with Labour, began collecting amendments as soon as it was published yesterday. It calls on the party to reject any UK-wide electoral pact but to none the less 'promote a process of discussion which includes those, of all parties or of none, who believe that a fundamental change in the governance of Britain is the key to all other necessary changes'.

However, yesterday evening the conference committee announced it had selected a 'purist' amendment for debate today which in effect sought to end all dialogue between the Liberal Democrats and Labour. The draft wording said the development of party policies 'can include dialogue with individuals - including members of other political parties - but not formal discussions with any political party'. The leadership made clear its intention to oppose the amendment.

Delegates will be offered the chance to have a separate vote on the idea of rejecting 'UK-wide' electoral pacts. This could leave open the door to informal arrangements between local Liberal Democrat and Labour activists in certain constituencies as advocated by Sir David Steel.

In the conference hall, Mr Kennedy warned that internal and external pressures on the Government were such that there was no certainty that it would last a full term. 'That is why from us, fresh thinking and a revised analysis is now needed - for this party and for opposition politics generally.'

Emphasising the need for policy that challenged the Tories' appeal to self-interest, 'but not in some patronising or paternalistic way - that is always Labour's fatal error', he said the party would have to confront 'The Culture of Contentment' identified in developed Western democracies by J K Galbraith, where two-thirds of the population tolerated the one-third that belonged to the underclass.

The Labour high command has remained silent on co-operation, but Mo Mowlam, the first Shadow Cabinet member to speak out, said parties should end 'what I see as the farce side of opposition, where everything they do is silly and everything we do is right'.

Speaking in a pre-recorded BBC Newsnight panel discussion, Ms Mowlam, spokeswoman on women and Citizen's Charter issues, said if the opposition parties agreed on freedom of information or reform of voting systems or the House of Lords, they should say so. There are differences and similarities. Let us celebrate the differences and acknowledge the similarities.'