Ashdown moves closer to Labour

Lib-Dems could act as Blair's buffer against left-wingers n TGWU to cut party contributions by £400,000
Click to follow
The Independent Online
PADDY ASHDOWN, leader of the Liberal Democrats, is to propose abandoning his party's strict neutrality between Labour and the Tories, opening the way to a closer relationship with Tony Blair's party.

The move to drop Liberal Democrat "equidistance" between the main parties is likely to make the Tories even more vulnerable in their heartlands.

Mr Ashdown, who will propose the change in a document now being drawn up, believes his party's success in last week's local elections gives him a chance to seek a realignment of British politics, without swamping the Liberal Democrats. He will make it clear that the idea of co-operating with the present government is inconceivable.

Closer co-operation between the parties may well be attractive to the Labour leadership, even though, on last Thursday's results, Mr Blair has a chance of forming a majority government. But the Labour leader is sceptical about the chances of a large majority and, in the event of a small one, the Liberal Democrats might provide a valuable buffer against the Labour left. Closer relations with the Liberal Democrats could help to unseat many Tories in such areas as the South-west of England.

Mr Ashdown's move comes as there is another weakening of Labour's links with the unions. The Transport and General Workers' Union, the largest contributor to Labour Party funds, is to cut its annual payments by £400,000 a year. The cutback follows Mr Blair's crushing defeat of left-wing union opposition to changing the party's Clause IV, and sharp personal criticism by his close advisers of Bill Morris, general secretary of the TGWU.

Mr Morris was derided as "confused, muddled and pusillanimous" in private briefings to journalists, and transport union insiders say he is still smarting at the accusations. "Bill's relationship with the party leader has collapsed," said a senior source within Transport House.

But Mr Ashdown's relationship with the Labour leader looks likely to flourish. His document, most of which will be devoted to policy, will propose the word "independence" to describe the party position instead of "equidistance". He will find an encouraging echo from Labour ranks this week, when Calum Macdonald, MP for the Western Isles, launches a group called Labour Initiative on Co-operation. It will issue a document called "Working Together" which shows that there are now 21 councils where Labour and Liberal Democrat groups have joint administrations.

The document argues that it may be that the "emergence of close co-operation between the two parties of the centre-left prefigures the shape of national politics to come". It adds: "In terms of official policies and priorities, there is little indeed to separate the two parties".

Mr Macdonald said the battle over dumping "equidistance" was "the great test of the Liberal Democrat leadership, and their equivalent of Clause 4."

Like Mr Blair, who travelled the country to drum up support for his Clause IV change, Mr Ashdown has made a regional tour and met around 4,000 activists in the past five months. He believes around 80 per cent of his party will back the new stance, but realises he will have to sell the shift ahead of its autumn annual conference in Glasgow. He told Channel 4's A Week in Politics: "I think the party has to face up to a decision of this sort ... in my view, quite soon."

Mr Ashdown's rejection of the Tories' record will be balanced by a claim that Labour's policies are as yet not specific enough to state which would be backed by his party.

The huge reduction in TGWU affiliation payments will be phased over this year and next. The decision, which has been conveyed to the Labour Party general secretary, Tom Sawyer, by Mr Morris, ends decades of TGWU supremacy in Labour's union league table of supporters. At one time, the transport workers affiliated 1.25 million levy-paying members. By the autumn of next year, however, it will affiliate only 500,000 of its 900,000 members, the vast majority of whom opt to pay the levy.

It will then be third in the ranks of Labour's affiliates, well below John Edmonds' general union GMB and the Unison political fund, which top 700,000.

Blair and unions, page 10