In the Lib Dem leadership race, education spokesman and MP for Bath Don Foster has become a hot tip. He tells Alan Thomson about Labour, language and lifelong learning
Don Foster, the Liberal Democrat's education spokesman, this week kicked off his campaign to become the party's next leader, touting himself as the most natural successor to Paddy Ashdown.
As campaign spin goes, it is a pretty good line. Few Lib Dems would argue with Ashdown's record as leader over the past 11 years. Between 1992 and 1997 the number of Lib Dem MPs rose from 20 to 46. This included four by-election victories and two defections from the Tories.
Perhaps crucially, the longstanding Liberal Democrat goal of a proportional voting system, which favours smaller parties, has been partially realised in elections to the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the European Parliament.
So why change an effective recipe for success? asks Bath MP Foster. "It is very important that whoever follows Paddy is someone who intends to continue taking the party in the direction he has taken it. But this is not a time for navel-gazing. We have to develop party thinking in a range of areas."
The problem for Foster, who at 52 is six years younger than his boss, is that the directions he has in mind would take the Lib Dems too close to Labour for many in the party. Yet he is adamant that brutally competitive politics must be replaced with a more collaborative approach.
"We have to move away from yah-boo, Punch and Judy show politics," he says. "I am clear that subject to three caveats we need to find ways of developing our links with Labour."
The first caveat is to ensure that any cooperation between the parties happens only after the Lib Dems have made it clear to the electorate what they hope to secure from any deal. Foster believes that the party needs a "new language" to tell voters that the Liberal Democrats are a party of power rather than protest.
The second caveat is that links are not a precursor to merger with Labour. The third is that the party's ability to oppose government on any particular policy must not be hindered. It is a risky strategy, and one that some say has already backfired.
In Scotland, Liberal Democrats clearly wanted to cooperate with the Labour Party and to have Liberal Democrat members of the Scottish government. By postponing their manifesto commitment to vote immediately to abolish the annual Pounds 1,000 tuition fee for Scottish university students, the Liberal Democrats were able to buy nearly 50 concessions from Labour. These include 500 more teachers, doubling the loan funding to mature students on low incomes, a Pounds 9 million, three-year pilot scheme to raise higher education participation among the poor, an increase in access funds over the next two years and Pounds 24 million extra for school equipment.
But, Foster says, that message was lost on Scottish voters, who gained the impression that the Liberal Democrats had sold out, abandoning manifesto commitments in a self-interested pursuit of power. He says: "I think in the long term it will be seen that we achieved something remarkable in Scotland, but in the short term there has been damage.
"In reality, there has been no sell-out on fees. I believe that my colleagues in Scotland will continue to oppose tuition fees." But the decision is theirs alone.
He says, too, that he can envisage a situation whereby Scottish students do not have to pay tuition fees while everyone else does. "Obviously it would be helpful if there were commonality, but it is not axiomatic that it has to be so, though I accept that the public may see things differently."
It is not surprising that Foster is most passionate about education. He trained as a teacher at Keele University in the late 1960s and then taught science in a secondary school for six years. He directed a project on the science curriculum for Avon local education authority until 1981, when he began lecturing at the University of Bath. Foster has been the party's education spokesman since 1996.
Under his leadership, the Liberal Democrats would enhance their status as defenders of education. He supports the government's efforts to improve education by increasing funding, reforming teaching and lecturing and setting learning targets. But he is critical of its "piecemeal" approach.
"I think there is need for a genuine understanding of what we mean by lifelong learning. Look at the government's white paper due this summer. It looks to resolve issues of strategic planning in further and adult educationI but will miss a huge chunk of the education service, including schools and higher education. I believe we need to rethink the structure of the (entire) education service if we are to realise lifelong learning."
Foster also thinks that university buildings are under-used. There is little point, he says, in ploughing money into new buildings and facilities when many are empty half of the time.
He is critical of the government's "centralist tendencies" when it comes to universities. "I do not want the government to say: these are the courses you must run. What we need to ensure is that universities are informed in their decision-making, but remember that they are autonomous institutions."
The perennial criticism of the Liberal Democrats is that they are a tax-and-spend party. Foster is doing his best to shrug off the image and points out that recent policies have not advocated showering money on problems. Keen to be seen as a political realist, he points proudly to his record on student funding. "I was able to say to the party that maintenance grants plus no tuition fees simply didn't add up. There were protests at party conference when I was trying to change policy. But I won the debate. It is not true that the Liberal Democrats would simply throw money at problems. We've been honest in saying that we cannot deliver everything we would like to deliver."
Foster started off as a rank outsider in the leadership race, but there is no doubt he is coming up fast on the inside. His biggest challenge in what looks like being a six-horse race will come from Charles Kennedy.
Much will come down to how far the party wants to go with new Labour. Kennedy is said to be concerned about furthering such links. Party members may agree. But Foster has strong grassroots support. Kennedy, the party's spokesman on rural affairs and agriculture, lacks the weight of the education portfolio.
Whatever the outcome, the contest will be hard fought. Although the Conservatives are basking in their successes in last week's European elections, the Liberal Democrats believe they can steal a march on the country's second party.