The Liberal Democrats in Harrogate: Ashdown's next mission: meet the people and listen: Patricia Wynn Davies interviews the leader of the Liberal Democrats

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Indy Politics
ACCORDING to the laws of flight the bumble-bee cannot fly, Paddy Ashdown says about his enthusiasm for attempting the impossible. 'Fortunately, the bumble-bee doesn't know this.'

Mr Ashdown is self-evidently shrewder, in spite of his restless enthusiasm. In a rare admission of possible failure, moreover, he accepts his latest 'moving outside' strategy may not succeed.

He is to tour the country for six months, beginning in November, spending only one day a week at Westminster. He will stay in family homes and, he pledges, listen rather than make speeches or proffer solutions.

The aim is to break down the barrier between politicians and voters, at worst exploiting the 'fed-up' factor, at best tapping or encouraging - he does not yet know which - a new mood of politics.

He wants a 'realignment' with ordinary people outside the political mainstream. Out goes any notion of Ashdown as a fixer in the image of the German Liberal power-broker, Hans Dietrich Genscher. In comes the 'not quite a politician' factor, and a prolonged opportunity for human contact, which is what he likes best. He is more than ready to kill off the 'one-man band', leaving senior party figures like Alan Beith, its economic spokesman, to perform in the Commons.

Though he is still proud to be there, Mr Ashdown says Westminster is stuffy, stuck up and out of touch with the way a modern democracy should be run. 'I have not enjoyed the last four years.'

The mission is fraught with contradictions. A self-professed man of the people who picked up his democratic instincts from working alongside servicemen of lesser rank, he still talks in terms such as 'the second stage of the operation', the 'democratic deficit', and of standing 'astride the agenda'.

He is attempting to tackle the long-standing contradiction that politics is supposed to be about people's lives but fails to touch them. He foresees, in the wake of surge of new democracies in eastern Europe, a questioning of established wisdoms: that Britain can only be run from Westminster, that politicians are respectable human beings that we should look up to, that all problems are solvable provided you have the right government to do it.

He believes there may be solutions to problems, such as community action, that are never considered; and predicts more Liberal Democrat-style local government, such as referenda on specific issues. Yet he says there is no other rationale in politics other than aiming for government and power. 'If you're not satisfied being a cosy think-tank and strong in local government then you have to be prepared to take risks,' he says.

Getting to know the voters and doing it energetically, laudable and useful though that may be, is hardly a risky enterprise, however. He appears to accept that shrewd political tactics is a better bet, finally, than flying off like a bumble-bee.

Part of the tactics is to do with what he now calls co-operation with Labour, 'a power strand of thought and political philosophy that will always have its place', much as he would wish otherwise.

'In the short term there are areas in which we can co-operate. The idea that you compete does not mean you cannot from time to time co-operate.'

Well, yes. But when he supports the Prime Minister on issues such as Maastricht and devaluation, he appears to be co-operating with the Tories too. Come election time, the combination could again be fatal.

He is defensive about his achievements over the past four years and irritated over unfair comparisons between a new party and the established order.

But the point is not lost on him. As he points out, Margaret Thatcher hijacked liberal ideas and then fed them through her think-tanks. 'They came out in revoltingly corrupted and distorted form but then she highly successfully sold it over our heads back to the electorate.'

He reluctantly concedes that John Major, a man 'struggling manfully' against post-Thatcher fatigue, is not coming from quite such a grotesque direction. The Tories have a lien on the word 'choice' and the concept must be recaptured.

'People know what the Tories stand for. People know what Labour stands for,' he says. 'I think we went a long way by really sharpening our policies, but it's still a question we have to answer. In so far as you say people still don't know what we stand for I think you are right. It's still the party's biggest weakness. This is why I think this 'opportunity thing' is so important.'

The 'opportunity thing' is the tentative upshot of three months' thought on the subject of what the party should stand for.

Putting flesh on the idea is still unresolved, but the tax and welfare proposals in the policy document Challenge, Opportunity and Responsibility, to be debated by conference today, are the core. He believes - and this is where the risk really lies - that the assumption that there can never be high-taxation governments is questionable.

'But if taxation is perceived to be the dead hand of centralised government - the reason why Labour lost last time - that suppresses people's chances it will have a devastating effect. If we can change the language and form so it's understood that taxation will enhance opportunity and put that across then I think you're in a different ball game.'

The trouble is that Labour are already kitting up to play. He breaks off to reveal that he never 'intellectualised beforehand' the popular Liberal Democrat pre- election pledge to put a penny on tax to pay for better education.

'It seemed like a good wheeze. I was very desperate to get attached to the Lib Dems one other thing than fair votes.'

He knows that won't do for the future. Taxation, as he says, is where the whole battle of opportunity comes home to roost.