Deputy prime minister Nick Clegg accused Labour of hypocrisy over tuition fees, in his opening speech to the Liberal Democrat spring conference.
The conference is being held over the weekend in Sheffield City Hall, just a few miles from Clegg’s home constituency of Sheffield Hallam.
In his speech, Mr Clegg said: “I know how difficult this issue has been for all of us in this party. We didn’t win the election and with two other parties determined to raise fees, we couldn’t deliver our preferred policy. But while we have wrestled with our conscience over this – Labour have shown themselves to have no conscience at all.
“They are the party who introduced fees in the first place and hiked them up. They commissioned the Browne Report that recommended no limit to fees at all. But now they pretend they’d ride to the rescue with a graduate tax when everyone knows that’s effectively what we’ve introduced. Labour are in denial, abdicating responsibility and no longer fit to govern.”
Hundreds turned out to demonstrate outside the conference, kept away from the venue by an 8 foot high “ring of steel”. Many more protesters, including student groups from all over the country, are expected to arrive from 11am tomorrow.
Clegg acknowledged the demonstrators, saying it was something the party would have to get used to if they were to stay in government.
He said: “Of course, government is very different from opposition. Difficult choices, especially at these difficult times, provoke controversy and sometimes protest.And it is not easy for us as a party to be the focus of those protests. Some of our proudest moments have been on marches: against climate change, against child detention, against the illegal war in Iraq.
“We’ve put down the placards and taken up the reins of power. It’s a big change but it is worth it.You can’t do everything when you are in power, but you can’t do anything when you are not. With power comes protest. We need to get used to it.”
Paul Scriven, Liberal Democrat leader of Sheffield City Council and children’s TV presenter turned Lib Dem peer Floella Benjamin also spoke at the rally.