The Liberal Democrat high command was spared that last embarrassment last night, but this was scarce comfort after the conference floor had so pointedly defied the leadership on the wage issue.
The defeat ranks as a humiliation for Paddy Ashdown, who last weekend decried Labour's 'umbilical attachment to a national, high-rate minimum wage'. The fact that yesterday's move backs regional minima and omits final decisions in the tricky territory of their levels does not lessen the embarrassment.
There was another, less noticeable, early morning defeat of the platform when the floor passed a motion to impose statutory duties on local authorities to provide school dinners.
The exercise in old-style stateism left Don Foster, the education spokesman who argued strongly against it, in a fury as he left the conference hall.
Mr Ashdown's rebuff over the employment policy is the biggest deal of the week, though probably not on a par with the traumatic trouncing of David Steel at the 1986 Eastbourne conference over nuclear disarmament. The then Liberal leader made an eve of conference plea for delegates to back Britain's retention of an independent capability until nuclear weapons could be negotiated away in discussions with the Soviet Union.
The floor, narrowly but none the less defiantly, backed the non-nuclear option by 652 to 625. A furious David Owen and other SDP observers, who were pressing for the replacement of Polaris, seethed on the sidelines.
Still worse has happened in more distant history. In 1923, the National Liberal Federation conference rejected a critical amendment to a pro-reunion resolution calling on Independent Liberal leaders to discuss with the National Liberal leaders the best way of promoting party unity.
Later, radical Young Liberals clashed bitterly with Jeremy Thorpe's high command at the 1966 Brighton conference over a left-wing agenda that included unconditional support of the seamen's strike, workers' control of nationalised industries and opposition to the wage freeze.
Sir David Steel said yesterday that he had been 'frequently embarrassed' at conference, while suggesting that Mr Ashdown perhaps took himself too seriously.
There may be a lesson in the fact that the now-defunct SDP is probably the only political party in modern times that managed to impose near-absolute discipline on its rank and file, such as they were, unlike its Labour parent, which has always made a speciality of rebellions against the platform.Reuse content