Ashdown says PR will split parties

Click to follow
The Independent Online
LABOUR AND the Tories will each split into two parties but the Liberal Democrats will not merge with Labour, Paddy Ashdown predicted last night.

He said the introduction of proportional representation for House of Commons elections would happen, even though his failure to persuade Tony Blair to call an early referendum on the issue is believed to have been one factor in his decision to stand down as Liberal Democrat leader this summer.

In a lecture in London, Mr Ashdown angered Labour MPs hostile to close links with his party by saying Labour was "irrevocably split" over its direction. Predicting that left-wingers would form a breakaway after PR was brought in, he said: "New Labour would be liberated and the left would have a voice again. No more internal appeasement, no more loveless marriages."

The only thing holding Labour together was electoral expediency, said Mr Ashdown. Under PR, the left could win 10 per cent of the votes in some parts of the country and a new socialist party could win a small number of Commons seats.

He said the Tories were already "two parties at war with one another" because of their "deep and unbridgeable" split over Europe.

"The adoption of PR for Westminster would make it likelier than not that the breach in the Conservative Party would become formal and final, and that the battle that is now being fought inside the Conservative Party would be fought where it really should be - in the open, between two separate parties, with the electorate as judge," he said.

Although some Blairites advocate an eventual merger between Labour and the Liberal Democrats, Mr Ashdown insisted: "This is not my vision and never has been. In fact my aim is the opposite ... to help create a political environment where people can work together without having to be in the same party."

He said politicians should not offer the voters a choice between "this lot" and "that lot" but between a number of different approaches such as Thatcherism, Clarkeism, Blairism, socialism and liberal democracy.

Despite growing criticism from Labour MPs of Mr Blair's policy of forging closer links with Mr Ashdown and his party, Jack Cunningham, the Cabinet's enforcer, met Alan Beith, the Liberal Democrat deputy leader, yesterday to discuss the working of the joint cabinet committee.

Mr Ashdown accused Mr Blair yesterday of raiding pounds 100m from the National Health Service modernisation fund for the nurses' pay rise announced this week, saying this contradicted the fund's guidelines when it was set up last year.