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banner Monday, 18 September, 2000, 15:14 GMT 16:14 UK
Guardians of the radical left?
The Labour minister didn't stand a chance. Not only was he outnumbered by his political opponents on the platform, he was also speaking to an audience entirely made up of Liberal Democrats.

Home Office Minister of State Charles Clarke was introduced as Labour's "Judge Dredd" by chairman Simon Hoggart at the The Guardian's fringe debate entitled 'Are the Liberal Democrats the new radical left?' and he was quickly treated by the audience in the manner of a pantomime villain.

First up at the mike the minister battled against the crowd, telling the gathered Liberal Democrats they must shake themselves up and tackle the element in their party he labelled the "natural oppositionists".

Much good-natured booing followed. And the minister continued, saying the Lib Dems should stop opposing everything the government does as a knee jerk reaction.

They must quit "sniping at the edge rather than offering constructive plans for change," he said - more boos.

That said, the minister told the well-attended fringe meeting that he thought there wasn't a fundamental difference between Labour and the Liberal Democrats, more a difference of emphasis.

Next up was Tony (Lord) Greaves who was sure that the Liberal Democrats - whatever else they were - certainly weren't new.

He hammered home his party's radical credentials, taking Labour to task for what he said was "a right-wing authoritarian agenda" and added that on civil liberties there could be no doubt that his party was more progressive than the government.

He told the party faithful that Labour had given up reforming the House of Lords and had only come late to the idea of increasing spending on public services, which he said was necessary to give people the liberty and freedom to live their lives to the full.

Another Lib Dem peer, Baroness (Emma) Nicholson, took the stand next and further championed the case against Labour, albeit from a slightly different tack.

Peppering her speech with French, the European Union was, she said, the crucible in which the future would be forged and a strong commitment to subsidiarity would prove the party's radical credentials.

On human rights, said the baroness,"The EU is a force for good and recognised as such." With Labour, the UK was trailing behind in the development of a radical Europe at which Britain should be at the heart, she added.

Last but not least was Simon Hughes, making it 3-1 to the home team.

He asked Charles Clarke the simple question: "How a party that calls itself left of centre let alone radical can defend an electoral system that kept the Tories in power without them ever getting a majority of the vote, I fail to understand."

The cheers from the audience made plain where they stood.

Pressing his case home he wondered out loud how a party that believes those who earn 100,000 should only pay as much tax as those who earn 30,000 could bear the standard of the radicals?

Again the audience showed its delight and referee Simon Hoggart, rounding things off, gave the minister a one minute slot to rebut his critics - a just reward for his good nature.

After sticking up for his case Charles Clarke too was applauded, albeit politely.

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