The Lib Dems are still keeping - a bit of - faith with Labour, and blame the Conservatives rather than Tony Blair for the NHS's problems. Lyn Whitfield reports from their Bournemouth conference

The Liberal Democrats, declared leader Charles Kennedy at the close of their conference last week, are neither to the left of Labour, nor to the right of Labour - but ahead of Labour.

Perhaps. But if so, the Lib Dems give the impression that they are pulling on the hand of the bigger party like a toddler tugging on the hand of nurse.

Not, as the rhyme puts it, for fear of finding something worse, but in the conviction of finding something worse should the Conservatives leap out of the bushes again.

Lib Dem speakers at last week's party conference in Bourne-mouth essentially felt the present government was going in the right direction - but it was too obsessed by 'spin' and too timid.

Don Foster, the party's spokesman for the environment, transport and the regions, claimed that Labour was too scared of bad headlines in the Daily Mail and had failed to provide leadership during the recent fuel crisis.

Chief health spokesman Nick Harvey told the party's health debate that it was a 'sad indictment' of Labour that it had taken three years to tackle a lack of capacity in the NHS.

That, he said, was three years in which 'Gordon Brown sat on his war chest, while sending the hapless Dobbo into the health service armed with only the discredited waiting-list initiative'.

But both MPs were equally sure that a return to Conservative government would be worse.

Mr Foster said Conservative shadow chancellor Michael Portillo's plans for taking 3p off a litre of petrol would lead to nothing but 'increased demand for CDs and videos to make the queues better'.

Mr Harvey said the Conservatives had 'bequeathed' the present government an NHS with health authorities 'on the verge of bankruptcy', with thousands fewer beds than when they took office and 100 fewer accident and emergency departments. All this chimed perfectly with Mr Kennedy's speech, which castigated Labour for 'being afraid of its own shadow'- but spent considerably more time attacking the Conservatives' record.

Mr Kennedy then urged both disappointed first-time Labour voters from the 1997 general election and 'homeless' Conservatives from the 'one-nation' tradition to join the Lib Dems. He told delegates that 'people want a better level of political dialogue'. One way in which his party would deliver one, he said, was by 'being honest' about the link between taxation and good public services.

Mr Harvey told HSJ earlier this year that the party was prepared to support Labour's health policy insofar as defending the founding principles of the NHS - or, as he put it in his conference speech, 'healthcare not just for those who shout loudest, but for those who cannot shout at all'.

In Bournemouth, he said he was still broadly supportive of the NHS plan, which he was involved in developing. But Liberal Democrats dislike the government's 'spin doctoring' on the health services and its 'over-centralising' tendencies.

At a Pfizer-sponsored fringe event with NHS Confederation chief executive Stephen Thornton, Mr Harvey said Liberal Democrats tended to see the NHS as 'an over-centralised monster', led by a health secretary who was de facto its chief executive 'even if they are desperately casting around for someone to take up a post with that name on it'.

Health spokesman Dr Peter Brand told a fringe meeting organised by the Royal College of Nursing on the theme, 'Who can save the NHS?' that it would not be 'Mr Blair and his army of czars'.

The NHS, he said, had been sustained through 30 years of initiatives by its staff, and they would be the key to saving it now, along with added resources and an 'honest discussion' with patients and the public.

Mr Thornton also emphasised the importance of 'local leadership' to delivering the NHS plan.

Government - and indeed NHS boards - could not deliver such changes, he said. Roughly 40,000 people at ward and unit level needed clear goals, training, confidence and financial incentives actually to make it happen.

Mr Thornton was calmer than his audience about the government's spinning and political interference. NHS managers, he said, knew this had gone on under every administration. They needed to 'put that to one side' and concentrate on the real issues.

This struck a chord with Tim Clement-Jones, Liberal Democrat health spokesman in the Lords.

His experience in business, he said, taught him that people would always complain about the pressures they were under and how their bosses did not understand them.

'The best corporations are those where people feel their glass is half full rather than half empty, 'he said. 'Being stuck with poor resources is very demoralising. With more money, staff and resources we hope we can lick it. '