Paddy Ashdown's successor cannot take Blair for granted

The Lib Dems will only get electoral reform if Blair calculates it's in New Labour's interest
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The Independent Culture
ONE ELECTION campaign ends in a wave of apathy. This morning another stutters into life. Both are more important than they seem. The results of the European elections will not be known for a few days, but they are likely to provoke more interest than the campaign that preceded them. Paradoxically, even the low turn-out will engender some passionate debate. Is New Labour ignoring, dangerously, its core vote in pursuit of Middle- England, Daily Mail readers? If the Tories are so confident that voters share their unquestioning hostility to the single currency, why did the electorate not turn out in their millions to register their opposition?

But these questions will have to await the results on Sunday night. In the interim, the Liberal Democrats move centre stage as Charles Kennedy and the rest of the would-be successors to Ashdown launch their campaigns. How many of you are holding your breath with excitement? Not too many, I hope. You would have expired by now, as the unofficial election campaign has been going on since January, when Ashdown surprisingly announced his intention to resign.

As the Euro-elections matter, low turn-out and tedious campaign notwithstanding, so will the battle to succeed Ashdown. It matters for two related reasons. One is a narrow one, of more concern to supporters of the Lib Dems, which is whether any new leader can build on Ashdown's electoral success. The other relates to the bigger picture, which preoccupies so many of them: their relationship with the Labour Government.

To take the matter of Ashdown's electoral legacy first. In my view, his achievements have not been fully recognised. There were times during his leadership when the Liberal Democrats were under serious threat as a national political force. Early on in his leadership he had to smooth over a messy, incomplete merger with the SDP and still face the wrath of the Owenites. More importantly, the period of his leadership has coincided precisely with the recovery of the Labour Party. He did not have the advantage of his predecessors when the centre ground was conveniently vacated. Certainly with the election of Blair in July 1994, there was much speculation that the Lib Dems would be swallowed alive.

The opposite has happened. Winning 46 seats at the last election was a remarkable performance. Without such a substantial parliamentary party, the Lib Dems would indeed have been swallowed alive by Blair.

Just as important, Ashdown managed to retain his party's potency in other elections, keeping the two bigger parties on their toes. This is an achievement that a successor will have to maintain or improve upon. In a system that still favours the big two parties, no one should underestimate how difficult this will be.

It was the Lib Dems' electoral strength that made Blair interested in doing business with them. If they had been weaker he would not have bothered, however great his admiration of Ashdown. It was the possibility of two parties on the centre left making electoral headway which explained Blair's flirtations. He knew from his own grim experiences in the Eighties that there was no room for two successful parties on the centre left fighting each other.

Which is why Blair's position remains so fluid. For it is still by no means clear whether New Labour's dominance of the political scene is permanent. If he convinces himself that it is, he would quite possibly ditch the Lib Dems. His Fabian lecture in July 1995 is one of the most revealing speeches he has ever made. It became famous for what appeared to be an endorsement of a new relationship with the Liberal Democrats. In particular, the following passage was seen at the time as suggesting that Ashdown and Co were on course for a role in government: "Part of our rediscovery is to welcome the radical left-of-centre tradition outside of our own party, as well as celebrating the achievements of that tradition within it... the task of the left of centre today is to put these two strengths together, led by Labour."

But what did he mean by putting "these two strengths together"? Then it was assumed by many that Blair had in mind a possible coalition government with Liberal Democrats. There is strong evidence that he did - not least in Donald Macintyre's biography of Peter Mandelson which chronicles in vivid detail the private discussions of Blair and others on the subject. My view has been that he was always ambivalent. He wanted to keep the option of partnership open. But, equally, he had doubts even before the election about the potential indiscipline of bringing another party into government. Remember how concerned Downing Street was about discipline in its early days, down to monitoring ministerial lunches? How would the Lib Dems have fitted in to such a structure?

In other words, even in those far-off days of his Fabian lecture, Blair kept open another option, that New Labour, alone, would put "these two strengths together". Probably his experience in the Balkans war, where he could rule with the minimum of consultation, in comparison with Gerhard Schroder who had to consider the views of his Green colleagues in a coalition government, has moved him further in that direction. Certainly some Downing Street insiders have reached that conclusion.

But Blair's approach is fluid. One factor would move him back to a closer relationship with the Lib Dems. It is simply this: the Lib Dems would need to become an even more powerful electoral force. Every candidate in the Lib Dem leadership contest will stress the importance of electoral reform for the Commons. They will only get it if Blair calculates that this is in New Labour's best interests. He may do so if the Lib Dems perform well at the next general election.

So the only real issue for the Liberal Democrats in the coming election is to decide which candidate would make them the most potent electoral force. This may seem what John Cleese would call "bleedin' obvious", but any follower of leadership elections will know that it is quite often the last factor which determines the outcome (think back to the Conservatives' leadership contest two years ago).

The Liberal Democrats can go for a candidate who offers an ideological purity, or one who can make them a formidable electoral force. For it is only from a position of electoral strength that a third party in British politics will continue to matter.

The writer is political editor of the `New Statesman'