Ashdown to offer Blair reform pact

Coalition plan to keep Tories out
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The Independent Online

Political Correspondent

Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader, is willing to join a coalition with Labour after the next election as a means of creating a long-lasting agenda for changing Britain.

Mr Ashdown will make clear in a keynote lecture next Monday that a post- election agreement to work with Labour is an option his party would be prepared to embrace. The speech marks his latest move closer to Labour following his declaration last year that he would not keep the present Conservative administration in power in the event of a hung parliament.

According to a Liberal Democrat source, Monday's lecture - directed at Mr Ashdown's own party as much as to the country at large - will build on the ground first set out by the Liberal Democrat leader in his May 1992 speech at Chard.

He said then that his party should "reach out to those who might share an agenda for reform".

The arithmetic of the election result might leave Mr Ashdown with little to talk about. But co-operation from the Liberal Democrats could free a Tony Blair government from relying on Labour left-wingers, while a fruitful political partnership could ensure continuing support from the third party in a subsequent parliament.

Peter Mandelson, Labour MP for Hartlepool and a close confidant of Mr Blair, has already argued for a post-election pact with the Liberal Democrats even if Labour is elected with a majority, "to assure a longer term, stable, left-of-centre government".

The establishment of a left-of-centre coalition lasting a full parliamentary term and beyond would represent a historic sea-change in British politics.

The Liberal Democrat leader is expected, in the speech to party activists in London, to emphasise his party's policy of carving out a distinctive identity which differs in significant ways from Labour's. He will repeat previous challenges for Labour to set out its policies in more detail and embrace a proportional voting system for the Commons.

He will also specifically leave open the possibility of his party attempting to exert influence from the opposition benches.

A source said, however: "He will be saying to people, don't just think about polling day. We have to think about life after the election. We have to construct an agenda, the ground on which something bigger can be built. It is not just a question of keeping the Tories out. It is about ensuring that progressive parties in this country make an impact."

Support for the new Ashdown position has already come from the senior Liberal Democrat Tom McNally, one of the new peers named in the New Year's Honours list and a long-time advocate of closer links with Labour. Writing in the winter issue of the Reformer, the Liberal Democrat policy journal, he said: "If as seems . . . likely, there is an unstoppable groundswell for change then we, the Liberal Democrats, have to be part of that mood and momentum.

"I do not see it as inevitable that the role of the Liberal Democrats post-general election is either coalition partners or sleeping partners to a Blair government. Equally importantly neither do I rule either prospect out of court."

Mr Ashdown had "earned the right to ask the party to trust him to be a little daring," Lord McNally, a former Labour MP and political adviser to Jim Callaghan, said.

Mr Blair has conceded on several occasions that Labour is not the sole occupant of the centre-left and said that he tries not to be "tribal" in his thinking.

Politics, page 6