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Last Updated: Friday, 19 September, 2003, 07:40 GMT 08:40 UK
Oaten buoyant over Lib Dem year
By Ben Davies
BBC News Online political staff

As the Liberal Democrat parliamentary chairman, it is Mark Oaten's job to be cheerleader to his party.

It was a searingly hot summer's day when we met and Oaten - clad in shorts and a t-shirt - seemed in buoyant form.

Almost his first words were: "When Charles Kennedy comes to conference he will address a party that has had its most successful year."

He points to opinion polls and this year's local elections as well as the party's stance on the war with Iraq as evidence.

And though we spoke before the Brent East by-election triumph, there's no doubt he'd point to that too.
When Charles Kennedy comes to conference he will address a party that has had its most successful year
Mark Oaten
Opposition to the war but, in the event of conflict, support for the troops was, says Oaten, the same perspective held by much of the public.

And inevitably, because of this year's events, a good portion of the Lib Dem conference will focus on foreign affairs but it will also focus on the threat of international terrorism to the UK.

The party's foreign affairs spokesman - Menzies Campbell - will give a major speech on the ethics of the war and there will be a debate on the ethics on weapons of mass destruction.

Disaffected voters

In particular, says Oaten, the party will be focusing on the "breakdown" in relations between the UN, the USA and Europe as a result of splits over the Iraq war.

Asked if the Lib Dems are poised to sweep up a lot of disaffected Labour voters, Oaten - firmly identified with the right of the party - says he believes his party appeals just as much to disaffected Tories.

Lib Dem parliamentary chairman Mark Oaten
Mr Oaten was in buoyant form
He says that is particularly true when it comes to public services - saying Labour are now perceived as "control freaks" obsessed with setting targets from the centre and the Tories labelled as being overly focused on privatisation and tax cuts.

"On public services Labour have pumped massive amounts of money in but people cannot see any improvement in delivery - the appeal we have is that we will reform."

That, he says, would take the form of allowing people to decide the way their local health service is run.

There was a time when the Lib Dems' most recognisable policy - aside from PR and joining the euro - was to put a penny on income tax.

New liberalism?

That policy has now been abandoned and instead the party would now, if elected, rationalise Whitehall and fund their policies with the freed-up cash.

Oaten says that both wings of his party - which was formed from the SDP and the old Liberal Party - will be able to unite around the direction they are now taking which he says will define liberalism for the 21st century.

Matthew Taylor will deliver a harsh audit of Gordon Brown's record and basically say that the 'Iron Chancellor' is getting rusty
Mark Oaten
The vision Oaten has extends to the way the future of Europe will map out with the old balance of power changing as new members like Poland and Slovakia come on board.

The UK may even be able to push for liberalising reforms of Europe's bureaucratic structures as the influence of France and Germany is offset.

"There are 10 new countries joining the EU which will change its political landscape enormously - the UK has the chance to get in there and redefine Europe in our image."

In order to obtain that level of influence we must first get rid of the pound and join the single currency, he warns.

Long grass?

But that issue seems to have been firmly postponed by the government which decided earlier this year that not all of Chancellor Gordon Brown's five economic tests had been met.

The subsequent 'No' vote this month in the Swedish referendum has perhaps kicked the issue even further into the long grass.

Charles Kennedy
Charles Kennedy has had a good year
"The euro issue typifies what's going on with the government - a lot off things will now have to wait until a third term, if they get one," says Oaten.

He goes on to list House of Lords reform, the stalled peace process in Northern Ireland and foxhunting.

At conference the party will also go on the offensive against the record of the chancellor.

"[Lib Dem Treasury spokesman] Matthew Taylor will deliver a harsh audit of Gordon Brown's record and basically say that the 'Iron Chancellor' is getting rusty," he said.

Tangible success?

Talking to Oaten, you get a sense he believes that things are really gelling for the Lib Dems.

Obviously as chairman of the parliamentary party giving that impression is part of his remit.

But Britain's third party has had some tangible successes particularly winning their biggest share of the vote ever in this year's local elections - 30%.

And, says Oaten, the opinion polls point to Charles Kennedy being a more popular political leader than either Iain Duncan Smith or Tony Blair.


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