'Race row' Lib Dems round on party leaders

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The Independent Online
LIBERAL DEMOCRATS at the centre of the Tower Hamlets race row rounded on their national leadership yesterday and called on Paddy Ashdown to consider his suitability to head the party.

In a statement from the east London borough, the local party also declared Simon Hughes, the Liberal Democrat MP for Southwark and Bermondsey, 'persona non grata in Tower Hamlets'.

The statement from disaffected Liberal Democrats rejected the report into election leaflets and the conduct of party members in the recent Millwall by-election, won by the far-right British National Party. They denounced Mr Ashdown for his failures of leadership and for bad publicity he brought on the party.

An inquiry chaired by Lord Lester QC recommended the expulsion of three members and the disciplining of three others. It also criticised the party's national general secretary, Graham Elson, for 'failing in his duty'.

Moves are now afoot to set up a rival party in Tower Hamlets called Liberal Focus. It would comprise some of those who have resigned from the Liberal Democrats in the wake of the inquiry, and would field candidates against their former colleagues in next May's council elections.

Peter Hughes, leader of the majority Liberal Democrats on Tower Hamlets council - who was not named in the report - said in the statement that they would initiate a response highlighting the 'inadequacies' of the report. The statement said: 'Resignation from the Liberal Democrats is a matter of individual conscience, but if any group members resign from the party we would continue as a single group and maintain the administration of the council.'

It continued: 'We note the report does not address the failures of Paddy Ashdown's leadership. He should apologise to the party for the bad publicity he has brought on it and particularly to those who are councillors who otherwise can have little confidence in him for the future.

'Mr Ashdown should consider his suitability to lead the party,' it added.

The statement also wanted 'an investigation into the by- election in Southwark and Bermondsey in 1983'. Peter Hughes said there was an allegedly 'anti-gay' campaign mounted by Liberals at the by- election that year, which was won by Simon Hughes.