The Liberal Democrat Conference: Debate intensifies over terms for Labour alliance

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The Independent Online
SENIOR Liberal Democrats have privately begun sketching out the terms they would need for gradually increasing co-operation with Labour up to and beyond the next general election.

New freedom for Labour to make pacts with the Liberal Democrats on local councils and an eventual personal commitment in favour of proportional representation by Tony Blair, the Labour leader, are seen by Paddy Ashdown, the party leader, as the key conditions for unlocking the full potential of an accord between the two parties.

While opening the way for a future pre-election declaration that he is ending the Liberal Democrats' 'equidistance' from the other two parties, Mr Ashdown has refused this week to join several of his most prominent parliamentary colleagues in explicitly declaring a preference for a Labour-led government now. He is unlikely to do so until next year at the earliest and not before some signal that Labour is interested in a warmer relationship.

But Mr Ashdown and senior colleagues are already seeking to define internally various possible levels of co-operation, all of which stop well short of an electoral pact. But the level of broad co-operation, if it takes place, would be closely tied to the extent that Labour modifies its stance towards the issues dearest to the Liberal Democrats.

Advisers to Mr Ashdown are thought to envisage several levels of possible co-operation. At the lowest, the Liberal Democrats could let it be known that while they would not keep the Tories in power in the event of a hung Parliament they would mke no deals with Labour and would simply decide on an issue-by-issue basis when and whether to support specific government measures.

At the second, the two parties might deliberately and publicly set out common policy ground between them - while maintaining distinctive elements in their programmes - in a way calculated to encourage a much higher degree of tactical voting by the electorate. In a handful of cases, parliamentary candidates especially dedicated to inter-party co- operation might conceivably stand down to give their anti- Conservative rival a clear run.

On the third, and least attainable level, the two parties might reach a more comprehensive understanding on the common programme that might be enacted by a Labour-led government.

The thinking on these issues is still highly tentative and there is no precision on timing. Moreover, at least some of the putative agenda taking shape may well prove unrealisable.

Mr Blair, who is already committed to a referendum on proportional representation is highly unlikely ahead of the election to modify his present stance that he is not yet personally persuaded of the case for electoral reform. However, the edict from Labour Party headquarters heavily restricting local council coalitions with the Liberal Democrats has already been breached in some parts of the country.

It is also probable that another objective set by Mr Ashdown - that anti-Liberal Democrat rhetoric by Labour politicians should be rapidly toned down - will be fulfilled. Mr Blair is known to take the view that it serves little purpose.

Mr Ashdown is said to be determined to proceed cautiously because of the need to take his party with him and because he is acutely conscious that each move is a ratcheted change that he cannot reverse.

Having last weekend taken an important step by explicitly allowing 'equidistance' to become an open question, he is also anxious not to create difficulties for Mr Blair by going further before the Labour Party conference.

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