Ashdown in move to educate parents

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Donald Macintyre talks to Paddy Ashdown as the post-conference dust settles on a new relationship between his party and Labour

In case you had forgotten during two weeks of solid Labour and Tory headline-making, Paddy Ashdown hasn't gone away.

Yesterday, undaunted at having seen Alan Howarth spectacularly defect to Labour a week earlier without pausing to consider his own party as an alternative resting place, the Liberal Democrat leader shot off a letter to all Tory MPs. It exhorted them to join his MPs in lobbying Kenneth Clarke to restore the money cut from last year's education budget, ensure a significant rise in education investment in this year's budget and to join his own MPs in opposing the Finance Bill if that doesn't happen.

Though Mr Ashdown won't say so, it is clearly aimed at the 30 to 40 one- nation MPs whom Mr Howarth claims are potentially as disaffected as he is.

Tomorrow he makes an important speech to the Institute for Education. And, for good measure, he was yesterday in an interview with the Independent, lending his own voice as a former member of the special forces - the Special Boat Squadron to be precise - to the chorus of denunciation against Michael Portillo for suborning Britain's military, including the SAS, for party political purposes in that "Don't Mess with Britain" speech last Tuesday.

The typical Special Forces soldier, he says scathingly, is not some kind of "lager lout" in uniform, but a "thinking, serious, very intelligent" person who deeply resents being used as a politician's "prop".

But it is on education that Mr Ashdown now has most to say. And because he, unlike Tony Blair, has come out unequivocally in favour of spending an extra pounds 2bn on education and against the use of spare money to cut income tax, he is perhaps better placed than Labour to try and intervene in the argument raging between Gillian Shephard and the Treasury on her budget for next year.

But it is on standards that Mr Ashdown is raising something which, though sketchy, is rather interesting: the responsibilities parents should take for the behaviour and academic performance of their children in return for the taxpayers' money. "The single most cost effective action you can take to improve education standards is to convince parents that they have a part to play in the process ... my view is that parents are more interested in participating and helping with the education of their child than they are in running the administration of their school."

Mr Ashdown is envisaging a "contract between school and home" in which parents are given a clearer notion of how they can help and encourage their children. He and his education spokesman, Don Foster, have been discussing with the National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations the idea of "requiring" parents to visit the school - probably at least once a year - to discuss how they can help ensure that homework is done. Each school would have a home-school liaison teacher to ensure pupils with academic and disciplinary problems are visited at home by teachers to enlist parental support in trying to resolve them.

Ofsted would be obliged to ensure that school inspectors take the level of home school liaison into account before drawing up their report. Some schools might develop a written statement to be signed by parents committing them to play their part in their child's education. And there might be classes for parents on how to help their children - especially in inner city areas where the culture of parental involvement may be least developed - and perhaps to outline the curriculum they are working to.

Mr Ashdown is conscious that this fits in well with what Mr Blair has been saying about individual rights being matched by responsibilities. Which brings us back to how the conference season has left his relations with the Labour Party.

Mr Ashdown clearly admired Mr Blair's conference speech. But he is still irritated by Mr Blair's apparent, though deniable, attempt to upstage his own conference with an interview extending the prospect of co-operation between the two parties. He is less than impressed by the deal that Mr Blair announced with BT. Labour, he insisted, sold itself "cheap" and looked as if it was "picking up brightly coloured pebbles from other people's beaches". He abhors, too, the personalised attacks on his candidate at Littleborough and Saddleworth as undermining New Labour's commitment to pluralism. And he is harrying Mr Blair on his "equivocation on proportional representation".

Mr Ashdown claims it is an electoral benefit to the Liberal Democrats if his is the only party with a distinct commitment to proportional representation. But he finds it "genuinely surprising" that Mr Blair will not commit himself on a position in the referendum he has promised.

But though there are continued, sometimes strident, complaints on both sides, it is reasonable to expect that, after the post-conference dust has settled, the Liberal Democrats' break with equidistance between the two main parties will come to bear more fruit.

Mr Ashdown is sounding warmer about the idea that both parties should start pre-election talks on the daunting mechanics of getting the elements of constitutional reform on which they agree - like freedom of information and the Scottish Parliament - through the Commons. And he notes approvingly that Mr Blair is gradually embracing his own beloved principle of "hypothecated", or earmarked taxes.

But isn't Mr Ashdown now leading the only "tax-and- spend" party? Far from it, he says. Labour has a record which means they have now to "wrap it all in cotton wool, say as little as possible and look as macho on tax as they can". The Liberal Democrats, with their pledge to deliver a costed manifesto, is the "promises-with-a -bill-attached" party, combining commitments to social justice and "economic toughness" - including a specific 3 per cent inflation target.

Mr Ashdown rejects as "obsolete" the term "left", and embraces the term "radical", which he interprets as "prepared to go to the roots of the problem and address it in an honest and courageous way".

What he will allow is that, at a time when Labour is still showing "extraordinary timidity", the party has now "come home" to its tradition of "conscience and reform" that, as he put in in his Glasgow speech, informed the Liberals' sweep to power in 1906.

At the start of the year, there were three questions. Would Tony Blair modernise Labour? Would the Tories self-destruct? Would the Liberal Democrats be swept aside? The answers had been yes, no and no. Mr Ashdown said his party is "better placed and better understands its role than at any time since I came into the House of Commons."