Leading Article: Lib Dems need not fear Labour

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The Independent Online
POLITICAL events sometimes seem so natural and inevitable that they occur almost without our detecting their significance. Paddy Ashdown's implicit recognition that there is no immediate prospect of his party supplanting Labour is one such event.

Many Liberal Democrats, including Mr Ashdown himself, have hitherto believed that the Labour Party suffered from so many historical contradictions that it must ultimately collapse in on itself. The Liberal Democrat purpose was to re-align British politics at that moment. The election of Tony Blair, however, means that the most likely arena for re-alignment is within the Labour Party itself.

An era of change undoubtedly lies ahead, as both the Labour and Conservative parties adjust to Mr Blair's still shadowy ideas. Mr Ashdown sees change as the natural ally of a third party, since it breaks down preconceptions and opens up new political opportunities. He therefore professes to be excited by the prospect of a Labour Party more social democratic in character. But danger awaits. If it is becoming harder for the Tories to put clear water between themselves and Mr Blair, it is all the more difficult for the Liberal Democrats. Mr Ashdown's constituency activists, particularly in the north of England, are acutely aware of the problems.

Liberal Democrat prospects, however, are far from bleak. Mr Blair's relationship with important sections of his own party could deteriorate. If Mr Blair plays too safe, the Liberal Democrats could emerge as standard bearers of intelligent radicalism on such issues as the welfare state and electoral reform. On foreign affairs, Mr Ashdown speaks with greater authority than any senior Labour figure.

The party has fresh and specific ideas to differentiate itself, such as the proposal to shift taxation away from income and jobs and on to pollution and the use of finite natural resources. Mr Ashdown also wants to develop ideas for giving tax payers a greater say in how their money should be spent.

The existence of an electable Labour Party should, furthermore, remove a factor that denied the Liberal Democrats the votes of many disgruntled Tories in 1992. In the last days of the campaign, Tory candidates in southern seats warned that a vote for the Liberal Democrats would let in Labour. It was enough to frighten many back into the Tory fold. With Labour's bogey status removed, such voters might dare to plump for the Liberal Democrats.

The Liberal Democrats must, therefore, remain a fount of ideas, focusing on individual freedom within a framework of greater social responsibility (nowadays known as 'community'). With all three parties competing for the centre ground, they can only succeed by holding on to their radical left territory, while avoiding self-destructive high-tax gambits. By those means, the ultimate Liberal Democrat objective may best be served: amicable but insistent pressure on Labour is Mr Ashdown's most plausible path to a new politics.