Leading Article: Ashdown must purge the racist tendency

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THE potentially soiling effect of politics is well illustrated by the saga involving allegedly racist leaflets issued by the Liberal Democrats during the recent council by- election campaign in Tower Hamlets, east London. Despite a critical report into the affair drawn up by Lord Lester QC, which found three Liberal Democrat activists guilty of pandering to racism and bringing the party into disrepute, the party's London region executive decided yesterday not to expel two of those responsible. The third resigned last month. In effect, the party has accepted the two men's regrets and their promises not to do it again.

It did so presumably to avoid tearing the (ruling) local party in Tower Hamlets apart and perhaps alienating grassroots activists elsewhere. Those fears are not altogether illogical. The Liberal Democrats, formerly the Liberals, have always had a split personality. At Westminster their MPs and leadership have cultivated an image of being morally superior to the two larger political parties. The Lib Dem leader, Paddy Ashdown, presents himself not unsuccessfully as an idealist with the long-term interests of the nation at heart.

In local politics, by contrast, there has been a long party tradition of autonomy and of fighting elections on community issues. In the vintage years of the Sixties and Seventies, Liberal candidates for council elections prided themselves on their awareness of local grievances, and their effectiveness when elected in dealing with them. At the same time, they felt something approaching contempt for the national party, with its pretensions to lofty idealism.

Such attitudes linger on, and lead inevitably to the kind of populism which, as Lord Lester's report put it, involved a belief that the end of winning power justified the means of pandering to white voters' resentment of Bangladeshi immigrants. A case of a Lib Dem county councillor using racist language, possibly ironically, is even reported today from rural Somerset.

Inevitably, where local resentments exist, all competing parties are tempted to appeal to them, and often do so: it is pure hypocrisy for Labour's Jack Straw to imply that his own party is innocent of similar tactics. But if the Liberal Democrats are to live up to their name and win the votes of those who are genuinely liberal, they least of all can afford to tarnish their good name in this way.

To forgive may be Christian, but it is not often good politics. Just as Neil Kinnock purged the Labour Party of its Militant Tendency, so Mr Ashdown must rid his party of its racist tendency.