As a series of senior Liberal Democrat MPs expressed their personal preference for a Labour-led government, the strong anti-Labour feelings of many Liberal Democrat councillors in the North were summed up by Peter Moore, leader of the party on Sheffield City Council: Tony Blair was not a Liberal or a Democrat or Libertarian. But, 'he's the media's darling, he's miles ahead in the opinion polls - so we'd better cuddle up to him and cuddle up to that nice Mr Straw and that charming Mr Prescott as well'.
Mr Moore claimed that the Labour-controlled council in Sheffield had 'blown the city's finances, was building up a bigger debt than Rwanda and cutting essential services to the bone to pay for their own incompetence', while 'ruthlessly crushing opposition groups and pressure groups which they could not control'.
His views were echoed in speeches from the floor at a Guardian fringe meeting. One representative, complaining about councils such as Oldham, where the Tory minority are co-operating with Labour at the expense of the Liberal Democrats, uncovered deep hostility to the idea of pacts, or a cosier relationship with Labour. It also demonstrated the contrast between friction between the parties in local councils and the more cordial relations at Westminster.
A succession of representatives blamed the media for highlighting the issue of relations with the Labour Party when it was not even on the conference agenda. But it also exposed some widely differing shades of opinion. Sally Prentice, a councillor in Lambeth, south London, said that she needed no lessons in the 'chaos, fraud and corruption' of some council Labour groups.
But she also said 'nationally, Labour has moved' and given the 'staleness' of British politics Tony Blair was a 'very talented and able leader'. 'Equidistance is a lot of rubbish. We've got to think about a strategy,' she added.
Stuart Callason also savagely criticised the record of Labour councils in Scotland but was applauded when he added: 'We should say we will not prop up the Tories under any circumstances.'
Menzies Campbell, the party's foreign affairs spokesman, appeared to strike a strong chord with the audience when he reaffirmed his own preference for a Labour-led government and added: 'Not propping up the Tories is not the same as doing a deal with Labour.'
Mr Campbell said that he believed tactical voting, which in his own constituency of North East Fife had reduced the Scottish Nationalist Party and Labour vote each to 6 per cent, would be much more widespread through Britain in the next general election.Reuse content