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IT HAS become fashionable for commentators and some politicians to belittle "activists", as Donald Macintyre has done ("On Ashdown's successor hangs the future of the Blair project"). Indeed I know serious politicians who use the word "activist", as if, as Brian Walden remarked in a different context, it were "some kind of strange new American swear word". We know how this happened: the Militant tendency and their ilk gave activism a bad name.

But could this be another example of the tendency of politicians to fight the last war? Can a political party have an active parliamentary party, or even a leader with experience of political judgement, without an active base to recruit them from? Can a political party win seats simply on the basis of an "airwaves war" alone?

It is not for me to answer for others. For the Liberal Democrats, about whom Mr Macintyre was making his remarks, I must say that activism is more important than they are for the other parties. Labour and the Tories have a significant hereditary vote, born with their party loyalty on their birth certificates. We, by contrast, have to win our votes by persuasion, seat by seat and election by election. It is experience, not just conventional wisdom, that leads us to say, "where we work we win".

Liberal Democrat activists are as able and as intellectually sophisticated a body of people as our parliamentarians. Many of them even have what our MPs lack: the experience of power. We do not need to preach to them about the compromises of power; they have made them.

We need our activists in a way the other two parties do not. They have sometimes needed to kick their activists in the teeth. If we do the same, we stab ourselves in the vitals.