Growth strategy will test stranger in the House

As the Liberal Democrats begin their spring conference, Patricia Wynn Davies finds Paddy Ashdown keeping his head down over links with Labour `What you will see is the decline of the whole system of politics'
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Indy Politics
The trouble with most political activists is that they are like burrow animals who like to stay in their burrows, says Paddy Ashdown.

"They have not recognised that today's problems cannot be solved by the old left-right dogmas - and nor by the nation state acting individually." The charge cannot be levelled at the Liberal Democrat leader himself, who is conspicuous by his regular absences from Westminster, which he doesn't much like, in favour of travel to Bosnia or elsewhere, and by his commitment to pluralist, pan-European politics.

Despite a noteworthy lack of profile over the last six months, he is unrepentant about the former - "it always seems to me a curious indulgence of metropolitan newsrooms that the only thing that matters in British politics is Westminster" - but, one apprehends, somewhat more concerned about lack of progress on the latter.

Television viewers of Prime Minister's Questions will know that Mr Ashdown is the butt, on every appearance, of concerted barracking by Tory and a good number of Labour backbenchers.

The practice dates from when Mr Ashdown saved John Major's bacon by backing him in the Maastricht ratification paving debate. Mr Major repays the favour by displaying an animosity verging on the gratuitous.

Yesterday's PM's Questions provided a graphic example, when Mr Major disparaged Mr Ashdown's lack of legal qualifications, compared to those of Tony Blair.

Mr Ashdown claims this to be "terrific" rather than dispiriting. "Every time the Prime Minister attacks me I can feel the votes falling into the ballot box. It is the greatest compliment I can have that the Prime Minister feels it necessary because they see us as a threat - and they ought to, given the number of seats we are second in."

There is a "grit-teeth determination", he says, to prove the Liberal Democrats are continuing to grow, and are making "steady progress" against both the Conservatives and Labour.

That has certainly been achieved at local government level, and is likely to be repeated in May's council elections, but the party remains lodged at about 15 per cent in national opinion polls. The fact remains also, that despite the existence of detailed policy documents on every aspect of economic, political and social life, widespread national media coverage tends to be confined to events such as last autumn's party conference, when delegates insisted on debating issues such as the future of the monarchy and the legalisation of cannabis.

"If politics becomes such an anaemic affair that we don't dare to discuss the things that are being discussed in every pub and club and street corner in the country, then how can it be held other than in very low esteem?" Mr Ashdown says.

He clearly holds the Labour leader, Tony Blair, in high esteem, and gave the distinct impression at last year's party conference that he had all but ruled out supporting the Tories in the event of a hung Parliament at the next election, and by implication ruled in supporting a minority Labour government.

But in the run-up to the local elections he has to be more cagey. "You can't define a relationship with a vacuum. We don't know what Labour stands for. In terms of policies, it seems to me that Labour has sought to ...hide their policies and hide their implications."

The Liberal Democrats, by contrast, have revealed clear commitments to spending more money on education, retaining Tory changes in schools and health, shifting the emphasis of taxation towards a cleaner environment and signing up to a single European currency, he says.

He is sticking to his pledge that he will spell out before the next election which way he would jump after a hung result, issuing the reminder that there is a third answer, "equidistance" from both the two main parties.

Other Liberal Democrats are in little doubt that Mr Ashdown wants to drop equidistance soon. The problem is how to do so without a row, for which there is a taster today from Cyril Smith, the former MP for Rochdale. Attacking Lib Dem links with Labour in Liberator magazine, Mr Smith urges Liberal Democrats not to "get their knickers in a twist" over Mr Blair, and warns Mr Ashdown that he would not get full party backing for a coalition.

Yet other moves towards "pluralist" politics are getting nowhere. Proposals for inter-party discussions on issues such as health have run into the sand.

The Ashdown ebullience remains undimmed. But he appears less confident, however, that significant numbers of voters will be tempted away from supporting either of the two main parties, and more prone to dire predictions about the state of politics if they are not. "What you will see is the decline of the whole system of politics. If we all fail to translate politics into a new structure and form that more accurately responds to people's aspirations, then politics will move deeper and deeper in crisis."

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