Ashdown shrugs off student fees criticism
Westcountry peer Lord Ashdown has dismissed fears the Liberal Democrats will face a backlash over university tuition fees at the ballot box in the general election.
The former Lib Dem leader and ex-Yeovil MP said the party will not be fighting for survival in the 2015 poll because of their traditional supporters' anger over issues like university tuition fees.
Nick Clegg's party were subjected to fierce criticism in 2010 for reneging on a pledge to students to scrap fees by backing Government's plan to raise the cap on tuition fees to £9,000.
Westcountry Lib Dem MPs Adrian Sanders (Torbay), Andrew George (St Ives) and Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) were among those to rebel against the party over the issue.
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Speaking before the party's crucial annual conference in Glasgow starting tomorrow, Lord Ashdown – the party's general election supremo – said that the party would have to give up "childish" strategies of scooping up protest votes from all sides and campaign instead as a party of government.
He said: "Student fees? Forget all that. (The key questions are) 'How well have you governed?', and 'Can I trust my future, at a very difficult, nervous, frightening time, to you for the next five years?'
"So, you have to govern up to polling day, up to the close of polls, and we have to concentrate on doing things that are right for the country rather than dashing into election mode too early."
On campaign tactics, he said: "The days of easy oppositionist politics are over. From time to time we could take the basically liberal vote and add to it coalitions of others in Eastbourne and by-elections and in constituencies.
"Now we're a party of government, and we have to put aside such childish things. We have to behave like a party in government and we have to fight an election like one. The fundamental difference that Nick has won for our party is that he has moved us from the third party outside the system of power to one of the parties contending for power, and that alters completely the way you have to behave in an election."
He cautioned against moves to differentiate the Lib Dems politically from their Conservative coalition allies in the 20 months before a general election.
He said it would be "mad" to start preparing for possible coalition deals ahead of the election.
Lord Ashdown added: "Nick's formulation... is absolutely right: what happens after the election is a matter that you can only decide on when you see the judgment of the British people.
"Until the electorate has made that decision you can't plan for it or prepare for it, and you certainly shouldn't be running your politics on it.
"What you have to do is talk to the British people – that's what the election is about, not talking to other parties."