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.