Leading Article: The promise of Paddy's plan

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A realignment to turn the centre-left of British politics into a force that could rule for years and leave a lasting mark on the way Britain is governed. That is the underlying agenda of Paddy Ashdown's speech last night and the delicate courtship with Labour leader Tony Blair. The prospect of such a partnership emerging is alluring. Such an alliance could amount to the most important new force in British politics since the emergence of Thatcherism and the reconstitution of the Conservative right in the late Seventies.

Ashdown's ideas floated last night are far more ambitious than an electoral pact. He wants Labour and the Liberal Democrats to get together for two Parliaments, the time he thinks it would take to enact a radical programme of government including constitutional reform, the overhaul of the welfare state and modernisation of the education system. At its core would be proportional representation, a system of voting that would ensure the Liberal Democrats maintained a separate identity while working in alliance with Labour.

His model for this co-operative approach is Scotland, where the two parties have hammered out a system of devolved government, elected by proportional representation, that each will put to voters at the general election. If the two parties can agree north of the border, then why not also in the South?

This is a tempting vision for those tired of party bickering and impatient for change. Mr Ashdown is right that the huge programme of reform needed in Britain - of the House of Lords, the voting system and over-centralised government - cannot be achieved in one Parliament. It may be beyond a single party: constitutional change needs a broad consensus. That would be easier to construct if the two parties were working in concert.

And in response Tony Blair has at least cleared his throat, even if the two are yet to agree to share a songsheet. In a speech last summer Blair spoke of Labour's debt not only to Attlee and Bevan, but also to great Liberal reformers such as Lloyd George, Beveridge and Keynes. Mr Blair may yet need more practical help from the Liberal Democrat MPs to face down recalcitrant traditionalists in his own ranks.

Such an alliance, however, will not work if it is a takeover. It needs to be an agreement between two parties with separate identities. Liberal values are only dimly understood and even less accepted within the modern Labour Party. Despite Mr Blair's impressive reforms it remains still the creature of the central state and too distrustful of individual initiative and enterprise. Labour is drawn to Singapore for ideas on welfare reform because it is impressed by the success of that state in transforming the economy. Liberals would be far more aware of the lack of individual civil and political rights that have been the casualties of that success.

We need a Liberal Democrat party that is to be a vocal advocate of its traditional values: a distrust of the central state and support for the local, pluralism and individual choice. These values are most deep rooted in Mr Ashdown's party, going back over a century to the Victorian electoral reform acts and support for devolution in Ireland. Paddy Ashdown is right to want to drag it away from protest and towards power. But he must be prepared to draw on the party's traditions and aim its radical guns at all those, including Labour, who might threaten his party's cause.