Lib Dem leader defends British coalition to party faithful

20th September 2010, Comments 0 comments

The leader of Britain's Liberal Democrats on Monday passionately defended entering a coalition government with the Conservatives, insisting his party would have lost all credibility if it had not.

In a speech to the party's conference in Liverpool, northwest England, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said the Lib Dems remain a strong, separate political force, despite polls showing their support falling, according to pre-released extracts.

"The Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives are and always will be separate parties, with distinct histories and different futures," he said.

"But for this parliament we work together to fix the problems we face and put the country on a better path. This is the right government for now."

Clegg confirmed Sunday that despite entering into a coalition, the party would contest every seat at the next election in 2015, and not enter into an electoral pact with the Tories.

The pledge was welcomed by the rank and file, many of whom would like to keep open the possibility of a future pact with Labour.

There is open anxiety among supporters about the compromises the third party of British politics has had to make to gain power, especially in signing up to major cuts in public spending to tackle a record deficit.

Clegg has defended the cuts as necessary to ensure future generations are not burdened with debt, and on Monday he was expected to repeat this -- and insist the party would have lost all credibility if it had ducked the challenge.

"Some say we shouldn't have gone into government at a time when spending had to be cut," he said according to the extracts.

"But the door to the change we want was opened, for the first time in most of our lifetimes. Imagine if we had turned away. How could we ever again have asked voters to take us seriously?"

The party leadership unveiled a crowd-pleasing crackdown on tax avoidance and evasion Sunday, to ensure the rich paid their "fair share".

The conference is the first for the party since it joined the coalition following May's general election, when the Conservatives won the most seats in parliament but not enough to govern alone.

The Lib Dems' new position of power was illustrated by tougher security than is normal at their conferences, while the number of lobbyists hoping to curry favour has doubled since last year.

But many in the party worry about whether they are giving up too much.

One member, Jill Hope, asked Clegg during a question and answer session Sunday why the Lib Dems were "being blamed for some of the cuts while the Conservatives are being praised for policies we brought to the coalition".

Over the next three days, fiery debates are expected about the coalition's plans to cut billions of pounds in public spending, as well as tax plans and school reforms -- and whether the Lib Dems can maintain their identity.

The latest polls show the party's support has plummeted since the election, from 23 percent to 13 or 15 percent now, although Lib Dem Business Secretary Vince Cable urged delegates not to be discouraged.

"These things are fluctuating, and four months into a five-year term, it's absolutely meaningless," he told a fringe meeting Sunday.

Delegates here have yet to erupt into open revolt, although this may change in a debate Monday on plans to set up schools free from local government control, which opponents claim would increase social inequality.

A vote against the policy would not change the government's actions, which are already being implemented, but it would be highly embarrassing for Clegg.

© 2010 AFP

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