The Liberal Democrats in Harrogate: Leadership's new agenda draws heavy fire: Members pour scorn on policy paper - Opposition to devaluation criticised

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Indy Politics
PADDY ASHDOWN'S attempt to take the Liberal Democrats in a new direction after the disappointments of the general election narrowly survived a vociferous onslaught from party members at their annual conference in Harrogate yesterday.

An intensive debate produced a call for the leadership's policy consultation paper, Challenge, Opportunity and Responsibility, to be rewritten on the grounds that it was inadequate, failed to articulate a clear philosophy and failed to cover important issues. One delegate said it might just as well have been called 'Fudge, Mudge and Bollocks', while others said it leant too far to the right. However, the call was defeated by 324 votes to 311.

Introducing the paper, launched by Mr Ashdown last week as the first step towards the next election manifesto, Sarah Ludford, a member of the drafting committee, said: 'What a con the Tories seek to perpetuate. They tried to pinch our best notions - individualism, choice, opportunity. But their individualism means greed, and selfishness summed up in the infamous Thatcherism, 'there is no such thing as society'.'

Ms Ludford said the paper aimed to put people in charge of their own lives, privately and politically. 'This is as far from rampant Tory-style individualism as it is from Labour's collectivist reflexes.'

But while Ms Ludford defended the Liberal Democrats' subscription to the market as 'a tool, not an end in itself', members rounded on the paper as implicitly attacking trade unions and for failing to embrace the concept of full employment.

Bernard Salmon, Folkestone and Hythe, said the paper - drawn up to focus discussion on economic, taxation, social welfare and environmental policy - had been produced in a short time, and it showed. It might just as well have been titled 'Fudge, Mudge and Bollocks'. It contained platitudes while asking questions that 'do no more than say we're against sin'.

John Oates, Kingston, who is unemployed, said: 'It fails significantly . . . to address the issue of unemployment. It doesn't ask how can we achieve full employment. It asks, 'is it achievable or even desirable?' '

Calling on representatives not to stand by 'as accomplices in the politics of impotence', he said: 'As Norman Lamont and others, including members of this party, indulge their obsession with the pretty pieces of paper that are called our banknotes that must not be devalued, the lives of millions of people are daily being devalued by mass unemployment.'

Don Foster, MP for Bath and the party's spokesman on education, said the election pledge of a penny on income tax during the election campaign was and remained popular. 'Yet sadly, this document skims over the subject of education and training. Don't let's throw away what was a very successful campaign theme.'

In a debate that reached linguistic heights, representatives attacked the use of words like 'enabling', that could mean much or little, or 'empowering', which in the health field has become Tory-speak for people who had the means to pay.

Gordon Lishman, a conference veteran and long-standing advocate of the idea of 'community' politics, said the paper used the words 'values and themes'. Those things were important but they were used in the place of words such as 'philosophy'. The difference was in coherence. 'It is important that values and themes and attitudes should hang together and be part of a single coherent approach.' He said the paper was fundamentally patronising: 'It assumes the nature of power is such that it is acquired and then given away to grateful recipients. That is precisely what is wrong with the Conservative Party's approach.'

Other speakers accused the paper, drawn up by Paddy Ashdown and the federal policy committee's 'new agenda' working party, of asking questions in such as way as to imply that it did not trust the community as a whole to make the right judgements, and of containing a rehash of an old agenda.

Alex Wilcox, of the Student Liberal Democrats, said the paper was a 'dead policy document' that did not even dare to ask questions.

Speaking afterwards, Lord Holme, policy guru and principal draftsman of the election manifesto, said the paper would still go forward to the consultation stage, but added: 'It is quite apparent that we've got to get the balance between the role of the market and the state better.'

He said, however, that full employment was unlikely to emerge as a party aim. 'It is likely we will concentrate on the long-term unemployed as an objective,' he said. The upshot of the consultation exercise will be debated in full at next year's conference.

(Photograph omitted)