Ashdown and Blair - the future of the Lib Dems lies with them both

The Lib Dems can't beat New Labour so, says, Donald Macintyre, they may have to find ways of joining it instead
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The Independent Online
IF ALAN Price, on hand to entertain the guests last night at the Liberal Democrats' tenth anniversary party, didn't sing "Oh, Lucky Man", he should have done. The fact is that Paddy Ashdown had a lot to celebrate at the National Liberal Club bash. A party which Ashdown took over in 1988, when its poll rating was within the margin of error of zero, now stands at 15 per cent, with more MPs than it has had at any time since Lloyd George. Its leading figures sit regularly round the Cabinet table under the chairmanship of Tony Blair. It has seen the Blair government introduce a series of constitutional reforms dear to its own heart. It is entitled to expect that it will share power in the first Scottish government for three centuries. A Blair government has granted it the favour high handedly denied it by a Jim Callaghan 20 years ago: a new proportional system for electing the European Parliament in 1999 which will widen its base. And it is closer than at any time since the 1920s to securing electoral reform for the House of Commons, thanks to a Commission chaired by its own elder statesman Lord Jenkins, a figure whom Blair appointed out of deep regard and whom he cannot fail to take seriously when he reports in October.

But this doesn't make the party's chronic dilemma any easier to resolve. It's pointed up by every hallowed demand on the Liberal agenda that Blair effortlessly grants. The Lib Dems' official stance towards the Government is that of "constructive opposition". When it concentrates on the "opposition" it risks drying up the flow of favours, the most outstanding of which, a new electoral system for the Commons, is still no more than in the pipeline. When it concentrates too much on the "constructive" it risks submerging its own distinctiveness - and with it the separate attention - especially media attention - on which its electoral strength, and therefore its bargaining power, may eventually depend.

In confronting this dilemma, Ashdown has to contend with a range of emotions - varying from wariness to extreme hostility - about Labour in his own party. Some of these emotions are easy to understand. It isn't, for example, all that surprising that activists worry about social authoritarianism in the Labour Party - especially when it is most apparent among some of Labour's most modernising tendency. Conversely since some of the most popular and sympathetic figures in the Liberal Democrats grew out of the social democratic traditions of the pre-Thatcher Labour party, it isn't surprising that they are nervous about whether New Labour is any more, and in any sense, a redistributive party. When Shirley Williams heartily congratulated the Blair government for its constitutional advances on the Today programme yesterday but admitted to being not yet sure about its social policies, she was being not only true to herself but to the facts. We don't know, and may not know until much closer to the next election, whether the ambitious gamble of luring the dependent off benefits and into work will have paid off for the poor as well as for the Exchequer. Finally, the strong belief among the pro-European Liberal Democrats - from Ashdown down - that Tony Blair could go further, faster, in leading public opinion towards Europe, and towards backing a successful monetary union, may or may not be correct. But it is perfectly defensible.

But there is also, rather quaintly in a party that pays almost uniform lip service to the cause of political pluralism, a deeply tribalist tendency within the Liberal Democrats. It surfaced, if in rather muted form, among some of those who attended a one-day meeting of Liberal Democrat MPs in January, when they urged Ashdown to damp down speculation about coalition with Labour. It will surface again more openly next weekend at the party's spring conference in Southport when activists and Liberal Democrat councillors will seek to put the brakes on Ashdown's continuing co-operation with the Government. They should start reflecting a little more clearly on how far Ashdown has brought them, and on the consequences that would follow a change of strategy.

At least two out of three opinion polls show the Liberal Democrats at slightly above their general election rating - which does not suggest the party is losing its identity in the public mind. Rather more important however are the prospects for Commons PR. Ashdown himself believes with some reason that a PR referendum will be more difficult to win than many of his supporters think. For the public to opt for electoral change it needs to be confident that co-operative politics - the almost inevitable fruit of electoral reform - works. And that may require more, rather, than less evidence of it before the referendum takes place. But there is also a more self serving point. Liberal Democrats like to talk about PR being their "price" for co-operation - and particularly for entering a coalition. But they should examine the question from Blair's point of view. Why would a Labour Prime Minister - even a Prime Minister as pluralist as Blair - introduce PR merely in order to create a much larger Liberal Democrat party whose future behaviour could not be predicted with any certainty? The idea that the party could secure PR without some earnest of support for the Government that makes it possible is mere myth-making. Unless the Liberal Democrats can be locked into the Blair coalition - probably by joining his Government - they should dream on. A coalition is, no doubt, unlikely - unless and until Blair has at least promised he would back electoral change in a referendum. But after that it becomes a distinctively live possibility.

For Blair, the potential advantages are obvious - that of mobilising a centre-left majority for as long as he is interested in his job. But all those Liberal Democrats who are interested in more than merely piling up the council seats should consider the prize for them too. Partly in a genuflection to the dissidents in his own party Ashdown promises in a document for Southport that there is "no glass ceiling" on Liberal Democrat success. But, as he - and some of those MPs who are less willing to confront his party with the truth than he is, well know - that is only now true if they are ready for still closer co-operation with Labour. In a forthcoming article in Political Quarterly Alan Leaman, one of the party's most prominent thinkers, argues against a merger but strongly in favour of deeper cooperation. Before Blair it was possible to imagine that the Liberal Democrats might, as Ashdown promised in his leadership campaign ten years ago, replace Labour as the main anti-Conservative force. But not now. Blair likes Ashdown. His party should see that as an asset, not a liability.