Leading Article: The strange death of liberalism under Paddy Ashdown

PADDY ASHDOWN this week opens the most uneasy Liberal Democrat conference since he became leader 10 years ago. His situation is a paradox. He has the elixir of electoral reform - the one thing his party really, really wants - poised between cup and lip, and yet his party seems determined to jog his elbow.

Viewed historically, the suspicion with which many Liberal Democrats regard Mr Ashdown is curious. Since he took over in 1988, he has only fought two general elections, obtaining a declining share of the vote each time, down from 23 per cent in 1987 to 18 per cent in 1992 and 17 per cent last year. However, this represents a remarkable holding of the line in the face of Labour's recovery and breakthrough, and bearing in mind the state of the Liberal-SDP coalition which he inherited and which imploded rather than merged, even coming fourth behind the Greens in the 1989 European elections

In the longer-term perspective, Mr Ashdown's record is no less impressive. The Liberal Democrats now have more MPs than at any time since 1931, when the old Liberal Party finally split three ways. What is more, the Prime Minister has appointed Lord Jenkins, the grandest of Lib Dem grandees, to devise a new voting system for the United Kingdom, which should help the third force to gain even greater representation in Parliament in future.

It is at this point, however, that an unkind truth about electoral reform emerges. Which is that voting systems are only a means by which political goals are pursued, they are not ends in themselves. And it is when we turn to the political goals of the Liberal Democrats that Mr Ashdown's leadership is found wanting.

On what platform do the Liberal Democrats claim their right to fair and separate representation? An independent Bank of England and a limit of 30 on primary-school classes, as set out in their manifesto? With Mr Blair so ferocious in his ambition to occupy the middle ground of British politics, the policy differences between Liberal Democrats and New Labour are only marginal ones of degree. When Roger Liddle in the Number 10 Policy Unit sat down recently to write a memo to the Prime Minister comparing the Lib Dem and Labour manifestos, the only differences for him to note (apart from those relating to electoral systems) were a 50p rate of income tax on annual incomes over pounds 100,000; free nursery education for all three- year-olds, as well as four-year-olds, whose parents want it; and a maximum of 30 for all primary classes, not just for five- to seven-year-olds.

The true purpose of changing the voting system is not to achieve proportionality but to promote pluralism, which is why Mr Ashdown's tactic of cosying up to the Prime Minister is so self-defeating. Why does it matter if the Liberal Democrats are under-represented in Parliament if they have nothing different to say - if everything they have said in the past can now be said from 10 Downing Street by Mr Blair? Mr Ashdown's suppression of his party's liberal instincts is a historic mistake.

Mr Ashdown needs to repel Mr Blair's naked bid for the soul of liberalism (which we publish today on the following page) by asserting his party's points of difference with New Labour. For example, it is the Liberal Democrats' missed opportunity that they have not opened up the debate on legalising drugs. They would still have won the Littleborough and Saddleworth by-election in 1995 if the party as a whole - rather than simply the hapless candidate - had had the courage to call for a debate on decriminalising cannabis.

Why are the Liberal Democrats not leading the charge against the latent racism of the present panic about bogus asylum-seekers? Why did they not oppose the illiberal gesture politics of the Conspiracy and Terrorism Bill?

Part of the explanation is personal. Mr Ashdown, like Mr Blair, is not naturally attuned to giving power away or letting discordant voices speak. But we know the real reason Mr Ashdown has descended into this fudge; it is because he does not want to "rock the boat" while the Government's precious cargo - the Jenkins report - is unloaded. However, it is much more important to persuade the voters that the values of the Liberal Democrats can make their country a better place than to be on best behaviour for Mr Blair.

The base on which to build support for aggressive liberal values exists and is sound. The Liberal Democrats have a large body of local activists, are entrenched in local government and inherit a share of the national vote that has generally been above 15 per cent even in the darkest hours of the mid-century. If they are just a bucket for protest voters to spit into, they are a pretty big bucket.

But, in the task of building on that base, Mr Ashdown increasingly looks detached from his party, an elder statesman entering the end game of his political career, while his troops, more numerous and vigorous than ever, grow restless, ready for a new beginning. This week will see some intriguing manoeuvring for the succession, with Charles Kennedy and David Rendel hustling out of the gate as stalking-horses for the next generation: Lembit Opik or Mark Oaten. It is too early yet, but the prize should eventually go to whoever can best set out what the Liberal Democrats are for - something Mr Ashdown has ultimately failed to do.

If Mr Ashdown helps to deliver some kind of electoral reform that is more representative than simply the alternative vote (that is, allowing voters to number the ballot paper in order of preference), he will have earned his party's gratitude. However, his party knows that the real reason any voting change comes about is because Mr Blair wants it to and that its leader's task now is to seize the opportunity for genuine pluralism by making liberal values count.

Arts & Entertainment
Maisie Williams of Game of Thrones now
tvMajor roles that grow with their child actors are helping them to steal the show on TV
Arts & Entertainment
Customers browse through Vinyl Junkies record shop in Berwick Street, Soho, London
music

Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
ComedyCollier was once told there were "too many women" on bill
Arts & Entertainment
Ian Anderson, the leader of British rock band Jethro Tull, (right) and British guitar player Martin Barre (left) perform on stage
music

VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
film

Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway
theatre

Review: Of Mice and Men

Arts & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp
art

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day
film

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London
TV

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

    Jury still out on Pellegrini

    Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit