Liberal Democrat parliamentarians rejected suggestions yesterday that they were to the left of the Labour Party, inhabiting political territory abandoned by Tony Blair.
They said that the old left-right tags were outdated and that political journalists should look for new definitions - including libertarian and authoritarian - to describe ideology today.
At a packed fringe meeting hosted byThe Independent called "Are the Liberal Democrats to the left of New Labour?", Baroness Williams of Crosby argued that it was simplistic to categorise issues such as Iraq in such terms.
"To try and fit them into an old-fashioned spectrum of left or right is to distort the real major choices you have to make in politics. Forget left and right and start looking at terms like authoritarian, libertarian, xenophobic and tolerant," she said.
Simon Hughes, the Liberal Democrats' Home Affairs spokesman, said that a more appropriate question to ask activists today was "are you conservative or radical? Do you accept the status quo or want to change it?"
He added: "The old order has changed. Our position is to win by new and fresh argument for radical policies but it doesn't necessarily mean that it reflects the old bi-polar linear distinction that has existed in the last 50 years."
Mr Hughes blamed the first-past-the-post voting system for reinforcing the concept of "block-vote Labour territory" and "block-vote Tory territory." But he said that voters today, regardless of whether they were from traditional Tory, Labour or Liberal Democrat areas, all had similar concerns such as crime, the closure of post offices and "less war, more peace".
David Laws MP, a Treasury spokesman, said polls showed that most voters considered the Liberal Democrats "within a fraction of the centre".
He said: "The electorate don't regard us as a left-wing party. What do left and right mean? Just take Iraq.
"It would be easy to characterise it as a left-wing issue but there have been plenty of Conservatives who voted with us on this issue. There is nothing fundamentally left wing in insisting that the intelligence should be presented in an honest and accurate and straightforward manner."
Mr Laws said that "tolerance and the belief in individual liberty" were core Liberal Democrat principles. He said it was not appropriate for the Liberal Democrats to "provide a refuge for disgruntled socialists".Reuse content