Should Lib and Lab lie down together?

Ahead of Paddy Ashdown's key speech tonight, we offer two contrasting views on cross-party co-operation; No, Conrad Russell says: if Tony Blair wants a coalition he'd better show us some real policies
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The Independent Online
With a bumpy pitch and a blinding light, spin may appear to be turning much further than it is. Some of the build-up to Paddy Ashdown's speech this evening may lead us to expect more than we are likely to get. Nevertheless, Paddy will ask us to think about the pattern of post- election politics.

Any member of the House of Lords must agree with Paddy's repeated calls for "partnership politics''. Cross-party co-operation, of many sorts, should be commoner than it is. I agree with Helmut Kohl that "you should not go into politics if you are not prepared to make coalitions''.

There are two indispensable conditions for a coalition. One is that a party entering a coalition must prefer its partner to the alternative. The other is that it must be possible to work out a common programme. In 1992, a large majority of Liberal Democrats thought it possible to satisfy these two conditions with Neil Kinnock. Today, many of us are less sure of these conditions with Tony Blair. The fear exists that just as Thatcherism is on its deathbed Mr Blair might give it a new lease of life. If he wants a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, that is the fear he must dispel.

Paddy Ashdown's Glasgow speech in September issued a challenge to the Labour leaders. The invitation to vote against the Tory tax cuts in the Budget (which they ducked) and to commit themselves to bringing Railtrack back into the public sector (which they have not yet answered) were part of the minimum terms for co-operation. Labour must have the courage to offer a real alternative to the Tories.

We cannot tackle the problem by a shopping list: governments daily meet unforeseen issues. If those are to be tackled, coalition partners, like marriage partners, must understand and respect each other's ideology, otherwise they will be perpetually taken by surprise.

Liberalism is about the link between consent, law and liberty. The heart of the matter is that no one should have to be bullied by the arbitrary power of another. This is why issues which to Labour seem unconnected, such as unfair dismissal, asylum, judicial review and government power to make law without consent by regulation, are to us part of a single threat. Liberalism was never the anti-state creed of the Thatcher parody: we understand that liberty must be protected both from and by the state.

That means we must reverse the Thatcherite anti-state ideology so brilliantly satirised by Roy Jenkins in a speech last Thursday. We must be prepared to spend money and raise taxes if necessary. Otherwise, the next time we are in a tight financial corner we would have to allow the service concerned to go down the route of care in the community and student finance, because it was not admissible to raise taxes to save it.

Liberal Democrats do not think that the victims of care in the community or social security disentitlement are enjoying liberty. Freedom from starvation is a form of liberty, and when all costs are considered there is no cheaper alternative to the welfare state. We believe, as Paddy said at Glasgow, that "taxes are the subscription to a civilised society''. We think the voters have learnt that lesson the hard way.

Many years ago, Paddy was asked which of the legacies of Thatcherism he would reverse first, and he replied, "Centralisation.'' The Thatcherite programme of forcing us to be free has strengthened the executive even while attacking the state: it has elevated the monarch in Downing Street instead. This must be reversed.

That is why proportional representation is not just a tactical objective. It is part of a larger ideological programme in which devolution, European law, local government and incorporation of the European Convention of Human Rights are equally important. Tony Blair's elevation of his own office leaves room for doubt as to how far he accepts this ideology. If he wants "strong government'', he can count us out.

We need honesty in spelling out policies and what they will cost. Last Thursday, Tony Blair, explaining his stakeholder economy on Newsnight, was so vague that he seemed to be taking off Rory Bremner taking off Tony Blair. It reminded me of Sherlock Holmes's maxim that "honest men do not conceal their place of business''. If Tony Blair wants a coalition, he must come clean and have some policies. Will Labour join us?

Lord Russell is the Liberal Democrat spokesman in the House of Lords on social security.

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