Monday, November 29, 1999

Britain`s Clegg tries to pacify party over coalition

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Britain's deputy prime minister has defended his decision to take his centre-left Liberal Democrats into a coalition with the centre-right Conservatives -- a pact party members will scrutinise at a meeting on Sunday.His comments came as the contest for leadership of the Labour party, in opposition for the first time in 13 years, got under way, with former minister Ed Miliband highly critical of the failures of the previous government as he launched his bid.After Britain's inconclusive parliamentary election last week, the Lib Dems held talks with both the Conservatives, who won the most seats, and the centre-left Labour party, to determine who they should support.The decision to join Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservatives in a formal coalition, Britain's first since 1945, has raised eyebrows among left-leaning members of the party who feel their leader, Nick Clegg, abandoned key Liberal principles to gain power.The partnership already has been backed by more than three-quarters of the Liberal Democrats' federal executive and parliamentary party, as required by party rules, and the rest of the party's membership will debate it at a special conference in Birmingham, central England, on Sunday.Although a vote against the agreement would have no immediate impact on the coalition, the lack of support from the wider party would embarrass Clegg and could raise questions about its longevity.Writing in Saturday's Guardian newspaper, Clegg tried to placate party members, saying he had chosen the only viable option."I know the birth of this coalition has caused much surprise, and with it, some offence," he said."But the truth is this: there was no other responsible way to play the hand dealt to the political parties by the British people at the election."UNWORKABLEWhile the two parties have radically different views on several key subjects such as immigration, defence and relations with Europe, a Lib Dem partnership with the ideologically closer Labour party would not have provided a majority in parliament."The parliamentary arithmetic made a Lib-Lab coalition unworkable, and it would have been regarded as illegitimate by the British people," Clegg said.He said there had been significant compromise on both sides, and there likely would be more in future, but the coalition was committed to a liberal agenda and it was the best way to ensure a fairer society.Announcing his intention to stand against his older brother David in the Labour leadership contest, former Energy and Climate Change Secretary Miliband said Labour had been left behind on issues such as fairness."Over time ... we tended to become caretakers of the system. We became more like technocrats and less like transformers of our politics and our country," he said in a speech to the Fabian Society, a centre-left think tank."We lost touch with the values that made us a progressive force in politics and we lost touch with the people we sought to represent," he added, criticising the government's action on the economy, immigration and bank reform in its latter years.

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