Leading Article: Mr Blair sets a trap for Mr Ashdown

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The Independent Culture
THIS WEEK'S Joint Constitutional Declaration by Tony Blair and Paddy Ashdown is a mixture of high rhetoric and low cunning. On the face of it, it merely restates the programme of changes to the way Britain is governed on which Labour and the Liberal Democrats agree. But the real significance is that, in showing that the programme will take more than one parliamentary term to achieve, the two parties will be bound to each other, however loosely, at the time of the next election.

Mr Ashdown is the clear loser in such an arrangement. Like so many others without his self-proclaimed shrewdness, he has had his wings caught on Mr Blair's silken threads. Newspaper editors, proprietors and columnists, however previously hostile to the Labour Party, have been lured into the spider's web. Even if they oppose the European Union and are apoplectic about issues such as the impending reduction in the age of consent for gay men, they find Mr Blair engaging, go-ahead and sincere. It is the same with business leaders, controllers of the commanding heights of the economy. Today's peerage for Sir Colin Marshall is a case in point. They may hate trade unions, the minimum wage and the Social Chapter, but they think Mr Blair is straight, understands their concerns, and is in some sense "one of us".

And so it is with Mr Ashdown, entangled in his own pieties about consensus politics and ending the yah-boo culture of Westminster. Those are pieties which we have espoused at The Independent, too. We favour politicians working together where there is common ground, and do not believe in opposition for the sake of it. But, equally, pluralism and choice are important values in a healthy democracy. Mr Ashdown claims to be providing "constructive opposition" to the Government, and he has opposed New Labour policy quite sharply on occasions. He claims, when attacked by critics within his own party, that his membership of a Cabinet committee - which produced the rather pompously titled "declaration" - is purely about working together on policies where the parties just happen to agree. But the overall impression given by the Lib Dem leader is of being on best behaviour on account of the two carrots dangled before him: one is the prospect of Mr Blair backing electoral reform in the promised referendum; the other is the possibility of gaining a Cabinet post for himself.

Mr Ashdown has been well and truly trapped by the Prime Minister. So far, the Mr Blair has not budged from his position that he is "not persuaded" by the case for proportional representation. That leaves him free to propose his own form of change to the voting system: allowing electors to use numbers to rank candidates in order of preference - the so-called alternative vote. This would certainly be in the interests of the Lib Dems, but it would not be a "proportional" system.

Much will depend on the attitude of Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, who is charged with coming up with a "broadly proportional" system to be put to the people in a referendum. But Mr Ashdown should recognise that, like so many others, Roy Jenkins has already succumbed - rushed, even - to the New Labour embrace. It was the Jenkins notion of the "Conservative Century" which the Prime Minister adopted to lend a sheen of credibility to his Lab-Lib web. He has talked about Labour and the Lib Dems as "adjacent" parties. Mr Blair claims the Tories won so many elections in the 20th century because the "radical", left-centre forces were divided between the Liberals and their successors, and the Labour Party. It is an attractive notion, but unfortunately it does not bear much relation to the facts. In the 1950s, for example, the Liberals were a pathetic rump and the Tories still won every election.

Mr Ashdown should stop his hydra-headed approach to politics - one day Mr Blair's best friend and a potential foreign secretary, the next his most coruscating left wing critic - and concentrate on setting out a truly liberal alternative to the authoritarian and centralising tendencies of this government. He might not get a seat in the Cabinet, but he would at least add something to the democratic process.