Sir Menzies Campbell made a passionate defence of the values of liberalism in his leader’s speech to the Liberal Democrat party conference in Brighton.

Liberalism requires tolerance he told an audience of party members, councillors and MPs.

He told them he has spent his entire life “speaking out against bigotry,” and that intolerance and extremism threaten our freedom.

His speech, on the last day of the party conference, attacked the Tories and Labour for “not listening” the electorate, claming that his party would “throw open the doors of government and let the people in.”

He addressed homophobic bullying in his speech – earlier in the conference the party had voted in favour of a series of measures to combat bullying in schools.

“If a woman is forced into a marriage that she does not want – if a sportsman is barracked because of the colour of his skin – if a person is bullied because they’re gay – then I stand with them,” he told delegates.

“I have spent my whole life speaking out against bigotry. You can’t be a part-time liberal.

“Discrimination and intimidation have no place in a liberal society. And on the matter of faith, let’s be clear.

“A truly liberal society guarantees the freedom of all religions, but it accepts the tyranny of none.

“People must be free to live without threat or fear. To say the things, write the words and live the lives they choose.”

Sir Menzies, who has brushed aside increased media speculation about whether he is too old, at 66, to lead his party into a general election, was warmly received by the party faithful.

Activists were heartened by a Guardian opinion poll yesterday indicating he is more popular that Tory leader David Cameron.

Sir Ming played up the advantages of his age in his address to members:

“When it comes to the next general election, I believe there is some speculation that age will be a factor.

“You bet it will. Because I’ll make it one.

“Because with age comes experience, and with experience comes judgment.

“And when you are deciding whether to send our young men and women to war, it pays to have that experience and it pays to have that judgment.”

He then attacked both the Labour and Conservative parties of being part of a “comfortable, cosy and complacent” consensus on major issues and positioned the Lib Dems as the only alternative.

“That is a consensus that we alone can break. That we must break.

“Only we can achieve that free, fair and green society because only we believe in it.

“Only we will work for it, only we will fight for it. The Liberal Democrats versus Labour and the Tories.

“Today our party is not only the real alternative, it is the only alternative. Not two against one, but one against two.”

Sir Ming received a standing ovation from party activists clearly impressed by his strong performance.

The Labour party conference begins on Sunday in Bournemouth and runs until Thursday.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown will address delegates on Monday, and on Tuesday gay equality organisation Stonewall will host a fringe meeting, “Equality For the Next Decade,” with LGBT Labour.

The Conservative party will meet in Blackpool the following week.

Information on Stonewall fringe events at Labour and Tory party conferences, which are open to the public.

Sir Ming Campbell’s speech in full.