Leading Article: The ball is in Labour's court

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The Independent Online
THIS has been a dispiriting week for Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader. A year ago his party seemed to be riding high, and his aim was to replace Labour. Since then, there has been a general election in which the merged party did rather badly. Yet the lessons do not seem to have been learnt. In Harrogate this week, the recidivist tendency of the Liberal Party was back, arguing that the new party should eschew any electoral alliance in favour of soldiering on alone.

Mr Ashdown now plans an informal dialogue with Labour in an attempt to break what his predecessor, Sir David Steel, describes as 'the endless Tory hegemony'. But Mr Ashdown said this week: 'Be absolutely clear. I have not the slightest intention of allying this party in any way with a Labour Party which remains unelectable, and the Labour Party is unelectable.'

The Liberal Democrat leader was trying to bridge the gulf between the surprising number in his party who do not want any form of contact with Labour, and those who realise that, if the Liberal Democrats were to reject talks completely, they would constitute a clique of exclusive brethren and not a vehicle for serious politics. But his intervention pointed up a paradox. A Labour Party that had done the things necessary to render itself electable would have no need of support from Mr Ashdown.

It is easy to see what Mr Ashdown would hope to gain from talks with Labour. As a minimum, he would expect John Smith to ask local Labour parties not to run parliamentary candidates in two or three dozen seats where the real contest was between sitting Conservatives and Liberal Democrat challengers. As Sir David said, this would constitute 'a one- way bargain'. There are precious few seats Mr Ashdown could deliver to Mr Smith, and no certainty that any deals he made could be forced on his activists locally.

The ball is therefore in Labour's court. The party should continue with its process of reconstruction, stealing issues that were once the unique selling points of Liberal Democracy. It should embrace constitutional and electoral reform, and minimise the influence of the producer-orientated unions. Specifically, it should move to replace the block vote with a democratic form of decision-taking. And when the Liberal Democrats are showing a new interest in interventionism and collectivism, Labour should build on its own conversion to market solutions. Mr Smith's aim ought be to remove any inhibitions that voters of classical liberal or social democratic leanings have about voting Labour.