Honest Paddy must tread carefully

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The Independent Online
Enter today Honest Paddy, the Politician who Tells the Truth. In his leadership speech in Brighton this afternoon, Ashdown will stake a claim to be the one party leader prepared to elevate the coming electoral debate above the timid evasions of the two big parties.

This is an ambitious claim but by no means a baseless one. He has the distinction of being the only party leader prepared to declare his hand on monetary union, the issue that will dominate the first half of the next Parliament.

The Liberal Democrats alone have been bold and long-termist enough to grapple with the environment - which will revive as an issue - and propose the levying of carbon taxes to pay for a job-stimulating reduction in employers' national insurance contributions.

On economic policy, Ashdown is the cuckoo in the nest, unique and not just in Britain, in being brave enough to challenge the assumption that no Anglo-Saxon electorate will vote for higher taxes. It isn't merely that he is prepared to contemplate a one penny in the pound increase in income tax to fund an extra pounds 2bn on education. By continuing to emphasise the menacing levels of public debt, as their economic spokesman Malcolm Bruce did yesterday, the Liberal Democrats will rightly be a continual irritant to their rivals, underlining the fragility of their relentless commitment to cut taxes rather than raise them.

You don't have to agree with each individual policy to be profoundly grateful that someone is prepared to break the conspiracy of silence on much of what will matter most after polling day. But we shouldn't get carried away either. There is also quite a lot Ashdown will not be saying this afternoon.

There is, first, a minor quibble about the economic programme launched yesterday. Most of it - including its anti-pollution measures - is fiscally neutral. But because of the pounds 2bn extra to be spent on education, it involves as a whole a modest increase in public spending. Nothing wrong with that. Yet at the weekend, in a tentative rightward tilt of the helm, Ashdown said that he wanted to bring public expenditure down to under 40 per cent of national income. Ashdown will make quite a lot today of the desirability of inter-party consensus to get through a programme of wholesale welfare reform. But until he, no less than Tony Blair, is prepared to say what he has in mind, his state shrinking agenda sits a little uneasily with the programme on which he intends to fight the election.

Much more fundamental, however, is the party leader's reticence about the consuming question of power and how to get it. On Sunday Alex Carlile suggested that the Liberal Democrats and Labour were moving closer together and that if offered seats in a Blair Cabinet his party should take them - a conclusion handsomely endorsed in the poll we reported yesterday.

Swiftly the party response comes back: Alex is a great chap but of course he's standing down. A bit demob-happy, you know. But that isn't so surprising since the sub-text of Alex Carlile's remarks is that the offer might arise even in conditions where Tony Blair, busily reasserting his Liberal antecedents, is not merely forced into coalition by a hung Parliament.

There is nobody who underestimates the difficulties - not least the need first for Blair to commit himself to electoral reform, second to sell it to a party who haven't waited 17 years to win power and then voluntarily share it with another party. But equally, few senior politicians in either party will rule out in private the prospect that as a bulwark against his own left wing, Tony Blair will invite Ashdown, Menzies Campbell, and perhaps a couple of others to join the Cabinet as part of a comprehensive deal even if he has a majority of - say - around 25. Carlisle is saying in public what many senior Lib Dems, Ashdown included, have contemplated in private.

But Ashdown can't quite put it that way today, any more than he can elevate into a national principle the technique his increasingly effective party machine is applying in around 50 target seats - almost all of them Tory held.

The local election results in 1995 and 1996 suggest a remarkable increase in tactical voting - or intelligent voting, to use Ashdown's own preferred term. A recent study of neighbouring wards in Basildon - admittedly at the peak of the Tories' unpopularity - suggest that across quite a wide area voters uniformly backed the Liberal Democrats or Labour simply according to which candidate was the likelier to win. The campaign in Liberal Democrat target seats consists in persuading increasingly sophisticated Labour supporters that their only chance of unseating the Tory is to vote Liberal Democrat.

Unable yet to reform the electoral system, the party is seeking to beat it. What's more, every twitch of the electoral beast since 1992 suggests an increasing willingness to be tactical. But to encourage the process by launching a national crusade in its favour risks reducing the party's overall share of the vote - and with it the most potent demonstration of the unfairness of the first-past-the-post system.

These contradictions should not be misunderstood. Ashdown's decision to end the formal neutrality between the two parties and promise not to sustain a Tory government was in its own terms as bold as Blair's to replace Clause IV. But there are limits to how far his party is yet prepared to follow him.

In councils across the country something odd is certainly happening: middle-class, golf-playing Liberal Democrat professional women are co- operating with diehard Labour trade unionists in running council after council. And more and more of those councillors, frustrated with the limits of local authority power, are now seeking parliamentary candidacies. The gibe about the Liberal Democrats being content to be the party of local government is less valid than it was. But Ashdown will have to tread carefully today. Carlisle is right. Ashdown and Blair want co-operation if they can get it. But Ashdown's caution today will be a reminder of the difficulties the rank and file of both parties could yet put in their leaders' way.