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Sunday, 22 September, 2002, 16:15 GMT 17:15 UK
Heart of the Lib Dem dilemma

With one conference ovation already under his belt - after his successful appearance before the TUC in Blackpool - Charles Kennedy can look forward to this year's Lib Dem conference with some confidence.

Over the past year the Liberal Democrat leader has kept his distance from Labour, kept up the attacks on the Conservatives and enjoyed a measure of electoral success at this year's local council elections.


The debates over public services will determine the direction of the party in coming years

He even managed to persuade a Labour MP - Paul Marsden to defect to the Lib Dems.

The party has recently published its policy paper on public services - Quality, Innovation, Choice.

There were proposals to devolve health and education to regional and local government and a special tax ring fenced for the NHS.

Blueprint

And the Lib Dem faithful will get the chance to debate the plans - the result of a year long review - in Brighton.

The review will dominate this year's conference and is expected to be the blueprint for the party's next general election manifesto.

The debates over public services will determine the direction of the party in coming years.

Pragmatists

Some activists believe the Lib Dems should occupy the territory to the left of Labour.

They're comfortable with talk of higher taxes and closer links with the unions - who represent the "producer interests" within the public sector.

But an influential group of pragmatists want to concentrate on being what they call "the effective opposition" to Labour and hope to pick up the votes of disaffected Tories along the way.

The new proposals on the public services are designed to appeal to both sides.

The call for policy decisions to be devolved away from London reflects complaints from public sector workers about interference from central government.

Controversy

But there are also proposals to allow patients the freedom to choose treatment anywhere in the UK .

But it wouldn't be the Liberal Democrat conference without a controversial proposal guaranteed to offend half the party.

This year it is a plan to relax the laws on pornography.

The Liberal Democrat Youth and Students are calling for porn to be more readily available and argue that it's better for topshelf material to be sold through regulated shops than downloaded from dodgy internet websites.

It's hard to believe that a party that's so keen on free speech would stage manage its conference, but by a strange coincidence the debate on pornography is scheduled for the afternoon of Tuesday 24 September - the day Parliament has been recalled to debate Iraq.


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