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Tuesday, 25 September, 2001, 14:54 GMT 15:54 UK
Lib Dems split over private sector
School children
Nick Assinder

Serious splits have emerged at the heart of the Liberal Democrats over allowing private capital into public services.

In one of the most controversial debates of the party conference, leader Charles Kennedy was left in no doubt that grassroots activists are deeply opposed to the notion.

And the party is now locked in exactly the same internal debate that is gripping the Labour party.

The leadership of the party is eager not to take an ideological position over the issue and wants to leave the door open to the notion of allowing the private sector a role in providing services if it can be shown to be more effective.

But many - possibly even the majority - of ordinary party members, backed by some senior figures, are equally determined to rule out any such private involvement.

The debate was relatively low-key - the shadow of the US atrocities hangs over all politics at the moment - but the row was summed up by two key speeches at the conference.

Tory dogma

First, the party's treasury spokesman, Matthew Taylor, told the conference that the Labour government was being driven by Tory dogma.

"New Labour has followed Conservative dogma that the public sector is always bad and private good.

"That is just as blinkered, just as narrow minded as the old Labour ideology of public good, private bad. PFI has become the only game in town on purely ideological grounds.

"Unlike the other parties, Liberal Democrats are not ideological about private finance or public service," he said.

But he struggled to convince all the critics who roundly welcomed an uncompromising speech from party executive member Baldev Sharma who declared "there is no place for private sector involvement in public services whatsoever".

"It is the responsibility of the government to run these services and no one else."

Councillor Andrew Toye also struck a chord with delegates when he insisted "we are a political party, why can't we have an ideology."

The row came after senior frontbencher Menzies Campbell had warned the party not to be "self-indulgent" over the issue.

Genuine passions

But many grass roots party members are fundamentally opposed to allowing any involvement of the private sector into the public services.

It is a row that has already hit the Labour party with trades unions, activists and many MPs also deeply against further private sector involvement in running health and education.

The issue dominated the recent TUC conference and was set to overshadow next week's Labour party conference before the terrorist attacks in the US.

The strength of feeling expressed at the Liberal Democrat conference shows that this is an issue that can stir genuine passions.


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