Political Commentary: Ashdown seeks Classic FM voters

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The Independent Online
A bright, sunny morning in South London and Paddy Ashdown is dispensing coffee to the press at his elegant three-storey home. The Liberal Democrat leader appears wearing light blue jeans and green jumper. The coffee arrives in mugs - one, showing its age, bears a picture of the Prince and Princess of Wales smiling at each other.

Sitting in this peaceful urban enclave, the Liberal Democrat leader seems the ideal politician to capture the middle-class voter - disillusioned with the Tories, alienated from Labour. He is the leader who should, as one of his colleagues put it, 'strike home with the Classic FM voter'. As if to prove the point, the Ashdown stereo is playing Elgar.

Not since 1983-84, when Labour was discredited by electoral defeat, and the Falklands glow had faded from the Tories, has the opportunity been greater for a centre party to capture the imagination of the British middle class. The 1992 general election demonstrated again the Labour Party's inability to tap into the aspirations of the non-Conservative bourgeoisie. Listen, for example, to the Labour candidate who contested a difficult Northern seat and found that even his party members were reluctant to display posters in their windows. For sections of the middle class, Labour membership has become like cross-dressing - to be discussed sotto voce and practised only with the curtains drawn.

Liberal Democrat success ought to be guaranteed. The idea that the two-party system can safeguard against one-party hegemony has been discredited by a fourth Conservative victory. The prospect of a Boundary Commission, handing perhaps 30 more seats to the Tories, should force Labour to embrace electoral reform and realignment. So why are Mr Ashdown and his centre party still on the sidelines?

As the prospect of government has receded, so has the involvement of the middle-class activists brought into politics by the Social Democratic Party. Election set- backs, and the Liberal-SDP merger and its acrimonious aftermath have taken their toll. There is a steady drain of key Liberal Democrat staff who, typically, reach their mid- to late thirties and begin asking themselves how long they can continue working in the political wilderness for a pittance. Former SDP officials have drifted away from full-time work for the party towards what one colleague describes as 'real life'.

The paradox for Mr Ashdown is that, after the recent election disappointment, consolidation of the party's local government base is more important than ever. Yet those dug into shire and urban politics are old Liberal activists, no more preparing for government than David Icke and his Green Party rump. In Harrogate this week, expect to see a limited resurgence of the Liberal bolshie and sandal-wearing tendencies; activists who bowed to party discipline before the election but are determined to discuss contentious issues such as animal rights, abortion and the legalisation of prostitution.

Parallel to this is the malaise within the parliamentary party. Even before the election one senior Liberal Democrat MP privately described his colleagues as split 50-50 between those who really wanted power and those content in opposition. The temptation now might be for MPs to diversify their extra-party activities. Take, for example, Sir Russell Johnston, deputy leader of the party until June. Although an assiduous constituency MP, Sir Russell is better known for his experience on the Council of Europe and as an expert on former Yugoslavia than as a campaigner. Even Charles Kennedy, potentially the next leader, has a constant battle to live down his reputation as a radio game-show contestant.

'There is,' said one Liberal Democrat last week, 'an uncertainty about what happens next and a real fear that nothing happens next' - an old-style Liberal Party oscillating between 12 and 20 points in the polls, stuck in the role of third party spectators.

There is little doubt that Mr Ashdown, not a patient man, wants to break out of this through co-operation with Labour. But this raises a number of big problems. Electoral pacts are difficult to construct because voters cannot be delivered by party leaders. By-election history indicates that Labour voters will often transfer to a centre party candidate if that is the best prospect of beating the Tories. Liberal Democrat voters (made up partly of those angry with the Conservatives but unable to embrace the Opposition) have proved unwilling to defect en masse to Labour. In some seats the Labour Party might actually suffer if the Liberal Democrats did not put up a candidate, since this could push some voters into the arms of the Tories. So in any deal it is Labour which has to give. Small wonder John Smith, the Labour leader, has not rushed into any overtures which would cause inevitable Labour divisions.

Nor is talk of pacts uncontroversial within the Liberal Democratic Party, which has a fault-line between activists used to fighting the Tories in areas like the South- west and those whose main opposition is Labour, for example, in Scotland and urban areas such as Rochdale. In local politics, Liberal Democrat councillors are used to Labour opponents of the unreconstructed variety. Thus there was a mixed reaction to Mr Ashdown's post-election speech in Chard, abandoning neutrality between the two main parties in favour of a non-socialist alternative to the Tories.

In Eastbourne in July a meeting of councillors was split between those angry with Mr Ashdown's apparent overtures towards Labour, those taking a pragmatic line and those in favour. Mr Ashdown is now beating a mild tactical retreat, stressing that there will be no pacts and hoping to emerge from the party conference with as much room for manoeuvre as possible.

In the meantime he is concentrating on reaching outside the party, to the old middle-class enclaves of the SDP, 70 per cent of whose members had never belonged to any political party. Last week he launched a discussion document on the shape of the new party and will spend three days a week outside Westminster persuading a public, wary of proportional representation, that politicians of different parties can co-operate.

While last week's document generally asks the right questions, the party could be missing a trick by not concentrating more on an alternative to the Government's 'do nothing' economic strategy. Mr Ashdown may be excellent on foreign policy, but he has never been completely at home with economics. Greater emphasis on a Heseltinian-style Keynesianism might just prove a winner.

Is it worth all the effort? Is the future hopeless for Mr Ashdown? Some in the other parties think not. Before the election several heretical Conservative MPs argued privately that a Labour victory might be good for the Tories, allowing it to renew itself in opposition, cast aside deadwood and remind the voters how bad Labour was at government. But, countered wiser heads in Conservative Central Office, with one Tory defeat the Labour Party could introduce proportional representation, propelling Mr Major from office for a decade in favour of a Lib-Lab alliance.

Mr Ashdown's destiny lies less in the hands of the activists who are gathering today in the graceful surroundings of Harrogate and more with Mr Smith and those preparing to meet in more earthy Blackpool. But like Classic FM, the more people he can win over, the better his chance of breaking into the big time.