The Liberal Democrats in Harrogate: Rebuff for privatised railways policies

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Indy Politics
Paddy Ashdown's commitment to free-market economics suffered a rebuff yesterday, when representatives refused to endorse proposals to increase competition in rail services after privatisation.

In a move which reflects concerns about a perceived rightward drift of economic policy, the conference rejected a proposal to create a new rail holding company to franchise services and stations.

The defeat - by five votes - came after a lively debate on a paper, After Privatisation, outlining plans for the privatised utilities after the next election. The document extended Mr Ashdown's general election argument that the Liberal Democrats were more committed to open and fair competition, with tough regulation, than the Conservatives.

Representatives removed a clause in the motion accepting 'that the debate between nationalisation and privatisation belongs to history', and inserted an acknowledgement of 'the role of government in ensuring the maintenance of comprehensive and accessible services'.

Supporting the paper, Malcolm Bruce, the Liberal Democrat trade and industry spokesman, called on the party to support 'genuine competition that will increase choice and improve services' and argued that 'co-operation between British Rail and outside is worth looking into'.

He added: 'We are certainly not in favour of private operators cherry-picking the favoured rail routes, but are we really against private operators picking up and using services that BR has failed with?'

But Beth Graham, from Skipton & Ripon, told the conference that when she first saw the document, she said, 'I thought it had got into the wrong envelope and should have been sent to the Conservative Party delegates'.

Offering an olive branch to critics of party policy on the utilities, Jim Wallace, leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, attacked plans to privatise water services north of the border. It was a proposal for which there was 'neither mandate nor necessity', he said.

Attempts to remove commitments to opening up the coal industry, bus services, and the post office to competition, and to breaking up British Telecom, were defeated.