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Sunday, 22 September, 2002, 16:15 GMT 17:15 UK
Lib Dems reach a turning point

This year's Liberal Democrat conference marks a turning point for the party as it bids to overtake the Tories, chairman Mark Oaten has told BBC News Online.

We want to get into government and we're not ashamed to admit it

Mark Oaten
Mr Oaten outlined his firm belief that party leader Charles Kennedy will be in residence at Number 10 in eight years time.

The party enters its conference on a popularity rating of 21% - its highest ever for decades.

Mr Oaten contrasts this with the Tories' "glass ceiling" of 30-31% and says: "We believe this is the beginning of the end of the Conservative Party."

The Winchester MP argues that Iain Duncan Smith has failed to make an impact in his first year as Tory party leader, and it is this, combined with factional "in-fighting", that the Liberal Democrats hope to capitalise on.

He claims Labour has "failed to deliver" and now was a time for "fresh thinking and new ideas".

Mr Oaten urged disaffected Conservative supporters to "buy the real thing" and swap their allegiance to the Liberal Democrats.

Tory challenge

"Instead of driving forward his new ideas, Iain Duncan Smith has had to ditch his party chairman," said Mr Oaten.

"He's faced the old guard, like Norman Tebbit, coming out against what is going on in Tory Central Office.

"It's been a summer of infighting. They have no answers yet on public services.

Iain Duncan Smith
IDS has 'failed to make an impact', says Mr Oaten
"They are completely obsessed by Europe and on Iraq, we think they have bluntly misjudged the public mood and are blinkered by their obsession with anything American."

Mr Oaten stressed: "It strikes us that this party conference is a chance for us to really take on the Conservatives.

"We have them in our sights now to replace them, both in terms of poll ratings and the number of seats up and down the country.

"Instead of this being seen as the third party conference - we are the opposition conference.

"This conference will be about setting out our stall on how we are opposing the government and doing it much more effectively than the Conservatives."

'Tricky animal'

But with the Lib Dems seats standing at 52 and Tories at 166, it seems the party has a little way to go.

Mr Oaten rejects the suggestion that the Lib Dems are left of Labour. "We are much more interesting than that.

"We are a tricky animal to portray on the left-right spectrum."

I can see Charles Kennedy at Number 10 in eight years time

Mark Oaten
But, Mr Oaten says there is no reason why the "pendulum" of politics should always swing to Tory or Labour governments.

"I believe that if the party's ambitious enough we can get close to, if not becoming, the official opposition next time round, and the time after that, forming the government," he said.

'Highly ambitious'

To demonstrate his optimism, Mr Oaten, a former parliamentary private secretary to the Lib Dem leader, said: "I can see Charles Kennedy at Number 10 in eight years time - I wouldn't be doing this job unless I believed that.

"My generation, in their late thirties in this party, don't want to spend the next 20 years in opposition or on the backbenches.

"We are all highly ambitious and we are doing this job because we want to get into government and we're not ashamed to admit it.

A nurse
National Insurance would be replaced with a health tax, say the Liberal Democrats
"Charles is a phenomenally popular leader with the public. They like his sort of no nonsense approach.

"I think Charles has always had the image of somebody you could have a gossip and chat with in a way which would be painful to contemplate with Iain Duncan Smith and hard to conceive with Tony Blair."

Health tax

Mr Oaten cites his party's work on rethinking how public services, especially health, should be funded and delivered as an indication of its seriousness about the road to government.

Led by MEP Chris Huhne, the party has collected ideas from mainland Europe and Scandinavia.

The highlight of the results, which will be launched at the conference, is a plan to replace National Insurance with a health tax at the same rate.

Does he want to go to war with Iraq or does he want to have a euro referendum?

Mark Oaten
Mr Oaten said this would give people a cast-iron guarantee that money raised for health was spent on the NHS and not absorbed by the Treasury.

"We think this will be popular and we think it's the right thing to do to ensure that the public know absolutely that that health tax is paying for the health service," he said.

The investigation also recommends giving regional governments the power to run local health provision.

Community hospitals

This could mean some areas deciding to focus more cash on IVF treatment, while others make heart care a priority, he said.

"If that is done in an open and transparent way in which local people had votes on it and were engaged in the process, then to some extent you have to accept there will be different priorities for different areas."

Mr Oaten says he would like to see a system where patients can choose where to have their treatment, including in a "community hospital", which is funded by grants, trusts and private money.

Blair is 'unlikely' to hold a euro referendum next year, says Mr Oaten
"If a person wants a cataract operation they will be given a selection of hospitals that could treat it in four weeks say, three weeks, or five.

"They could then choose which one you go to. It's public money which pays for it and it's public money which is going into the public hospital, the private hospital or the community hospital."

This would end the system where the private sector is called on if a person has been waiting 16 months and the NHS hospital fears being penalised.

Euro doubts

"It's breaking away from that kind of structure and actually having public, private and voluntary working alongside each other giving the patients greater choice about where they go."

Mr Oaten said pressure to go to war with Iraq makes him believe a referendum on the euro next year is "doubtful".

"I suspect that while Mr Blair was having drinks on holiday in France this year he probably gave some thought to this issue and I think he's probably decided to kick it into the long grass," he said.

"He has almost got to make his mind up: Does he want to go to war with Iraq or does he want to have a euro referendum?

"Those are two extraordinary big issues and I'm not sure that the Labour Party would have the capacity to cope with both issues.

"I personally think he should do it. I think it's a sign of a good prime minister as opposed to an opportunistic prime minister, to take this decision and I think its right and in our interests."

'Rubber chicken circuit'

The conference, which will be addressed by Tony Leon, leader of the Democratic Alliance Party in South Africa, is likely to include an emergency debate on Iraq.

MPs will be called back to the House of Commons on the second day of the conference to debate the prospect of military action.

Mr Oaten says for most MPs the conference is "absolutely exhausting", but will be followed by a reshuffle of the party's chief spokesmen.

"I'm doing two or three fringes every day and literally running around endlessly," he said.

"It's like one long rubber chicken circuit, I guess. You are speaking at a fringe and everybody there has a plate of food in front of them, but because you are speaking, you don't so you grab a sandwich, or a bit of rubber chicken, on the way to the next fringe.

"The plus side is the chance to catch up with old friends, constituencies.

"It's like having one big school reunion at the same time."

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See also:

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