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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Anthony Hopkins in Westworld

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rock and role: Jamie Bell's character Benjamin Grimm is transformed into 'Thing' in the film adaptation of Marvel Comics' 'Fantastic Four'
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Hopkins veered between sycophancy and insult in her new chat show
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
In his role as Hamlet, Benedict Cumberbatch will have to learn, and repeat night after night, around 1,480 lines

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Belgian sexologist Goedele Liekens with pupils at Hollins Technology College in Accrington
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Judges Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The rapper Drake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The gaffer: Prince Philip and the future Queen in 1947
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Style icons: The Beatles on set in Austria
film
Arts and Entertainment
By Seuss! ‘What Pet Shall I Get?’ hits the bookshops this week
Books
Arts and Entertainment
The mushroom cloud over Hiroshima after Enola Gray and her crew dropped the bomb
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Elliott outside his stationery store that houses a Post Office
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Rebecca Ferguson, Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible Rogue Nation

Film review Tom Cruise, 50, is still like a puppy in this relentless action soap opera

Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams in True Detective season 2

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Off the wall: the cast of ‘Life in Squares’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

Books And it is whizzpopping!

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
    Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
    Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

    Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

    Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
    Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

    Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

    The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
    Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

    Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

    His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

    Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future
    Berlusconi's world of sleaze: The astonishing lifestyle once enjoyed by Italy's former PM

    Berlusconi's world of sleaze

    The astonishing lifestyle once enjoyed by Italy's former PM
    Disney plans galactic domination with endless Star Wars spin-offs

    Disney plans galactic domination with endless Star Wars spin-offs

    Films and theme parks are just the beginning. Disney believes its control of the now decades-old franchise can bring in merchandise and marketing millions for years to come
    Could the golden age of the gaming arcade ever be revived in the era of the Xbox?

    Could gaming arcades be revived?

    The days when coin-ops were the only way to play the latest video games are gone. But a small band of enthusiasts are keeping the button-pushing dream alive
    Edinburgh Fringe 2015: The 'tampon tax' has inspired a new wave of female comedians to reclaim period jokes

    Heard the one about menstruation?

    Yes, if you have been at the Fringe, where period pieces are taking centre stage