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Saturday, 14 March, 1998, 22:23 GMT
Lib Dems agonise over Labour links
Ashdown: sees benefits from working with Labour
The Liberal Democrats have had a heated debate over closer cooperation with Labour, ending with supporters of both sides of the argument claiming victory.

The party's spring conference in Southport voted on Saturday to insist that the leadership must consult with members before any significant shift in strategy - normally understood to be closer ties with Labour.

Party activists opposed to tighter links with Tony Blair emerged from the conference hall convinced that they had carried the day and placed strong restraints on party leader Paddy Ashdown.

Blair: the bogeyman for many Lib Dems
David Howarth, a member of the party's federal policy committee, claimed Mr Ashdown was now in a "quadruple arm lock. I feel much more confident of the party's future now".

Ashdown pleased

But Mr Ashdown said he was delighted with the conference's decision. He said it recognised the parliamentary party's policy of constructive opposition to the government.

Sources close to the Lib Dem leader pointed out that one amendment passed by the conference gave Mr Ashdown the chance to consult directly all party members in a referendum, and not just consult the party conference, if a significant change of direction was intended.

Mr Ashdown himself said: "I think my room for manoeuvre is wider than it would otherwise have been."

But he made it clear that there was no question of coalition with Labour at present.

He stressed that any extension of the remit of the existing cabinet committee on which he sits with Tony Blair would not be subject to a referendum of party members, because it was already dealt with by existing consultation arrangements.

'How far should we go?'

Baroness Williams: keen to work closely with her former party
Party activist Gordon Lishman, who proposed the amendment that enshrined the referendum of the party membership, said: "We have demonstrated that the mood of the party is such that a deal with Labour is impossible beyond what we have already."

But many members stressed the need to work with Labour.

Baroness Shirley Williams urged the conference to realise what Paddy Ashdown's approach had already achieved.

Working with Labour had brought about radical reforms, including constitutional changes that reformers could previously only have dreamed about, she said.

Baroness Williams added: "Please conference, do not manacle the hands of our leadership."

North Dorset representative Paula Yates challenged the conference to say: "Is it that we think that Paddy is going to sell us all for a seat in the cabinet?"

She dismissed that, saying Mr Ashdown only had to look at the "ghost of Dr Owen to see what Liberal Democrats do to leaders who get too uppity".

Mrs Yates said that the Lib-Lab pact of the 1970s was not as bad as it had been made out to be.

See also:

20 Jan 98 | Politics
Ashdown attacks Blair's 'moralising'
02 Mar 98 | Special Report
Lib Dems look back on a troubled history
23 Feb 98 | London Referendum
Liberal Democrat proposals for London
14 Mar 98 | BUDGET NEWS
Bruce backs tax rise for education
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