Leading Article: Paddy and the pink bonbons

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The Independent Online
Tony Blair certainly knows how to gatecrash a party. There was Paddy Ashdown, wall to wall on television over the weekend insisting that the Liberal Democrats couldn't enjoy a close affinity with Labour "because no one knows where the Labour Party stands". Robert Maclennan, the Lib Dem president, had already combed out of his dictionary of quotations a delicious morsel of Debussy on Grieg, to the effect that the latter's compositions (for which read new Labour's policies) are "pink bonbons stuffed with snow". Outside the quotation marks Mr Maclennan went on, "Labour used to be on vodka, if not paint stripper. Now they're hooked on under-strength cocoa."

It was, of course, between Mr Ashdown's TV talk and Mr Maclennan's platform oratory that we were given Mr Blair's interview, in which he said that he would be prepared to talk policy with the Liberals both before and after an election. What does this exquisite timing signify? In part, it is a skilful and characteristically ruthless tactical move by Mr Blair, who means to dominate events in Glasgow this week as he will his own party's conference in Brighton in 10 days' time. Stick that in your dictionary of quotations Maclennan, so to speak.

It would be wrong, however, to see Mr Blair's intervention as a sign of his strength. A year ago, many thought that by now new Labour would have crowded the old Lib Dems off the stage. That has not happened - Paddy's people have made themselves the second party in local government and continued to win famous by-election victories. There is, as the Independent has often argued, something stubborn in this party's roots.

Consider the Liberal tradition of community politics, much derided over the years (paving stones and dog-poo politics), but surely a deep strength at a time when everyone, left and right, wants to be considered a communitarian.

The question for Mr Ashdown, who addresses his conference today, is to define this distinctiveness; to describe a radicalism that promises effective engagement with the problems of employment, education and environment, without sliding back towards the marshy ground of political fantasy which has often caught the feet of modern Liberals.

If Mr Ashdown can do it, two possibilities are open to Mr Blair. He can either leave the radical ground free for the Lib Dems, and then negotiate with them from his new neo-conservative centre ground before and/or after an election. Or, following the annus mirabilis spent modernising his party, he can set out his own radical stall for modernising Britain.

If Mr Blair turns out to be Tone the Tory, Mr Ashdown could well find himself negotiating from a position of some strength, depending upon the electoral arithmetic. If it's Tone the Radical, the Lib Dems will have their work cut out to stay one step ahead. But whichever Tone we get, Mr Ashdown's options are the same. The traditions of his party and the tactical demands of positioning himself vis-a-vis Labour point in the same direction. The Liberal Democrats must be radical, precise and believable. Over to you, Paddy.