There will be no listing to the left on Captain Paddy's ship

Paddy Ashdown

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The Liberal Democrats, according to Paddy Ashdown, have an in- built tilt to the left. The faithful who were gathering in Eastbourne yesterday for their annual party conference will be undisturbed by that analysis. The radicals might even feel flattered.

Unfortunately, Mr Ashdown is determined that the party should straighten itself up, stomach in, chest out, and toe a more disciplined line. Tony Blair has developed a political game for the Labour Party, called Follow My Lead. Mr Ashdown wants the Liberal Democrats to play the same game.

"The tendency of the party in opposition to a Labour government will be simply to go off further to the left," he told me in a pre-conference interview. "It seems to me more necessary than ever that we should be prepared to become the party of the consumer, not the party of producer interest. Despite the fact that we have a very large element of the party in local government, that is going to be very tough and very difficult."

Mr Ashdown believes the Liberal Democrats must take risks. They must not succumb to the temptations of an easy life, resting on the success of the 46 MPs elected on the night of Labour's landslide. They must boldly search for a fresh appeal. There can be no sacred cows; no pre-determined policies are to be spared. There is to be no flinching from hard choices in finding an identity that distinguishes the Liberal Democrats from Labour and the Tories.

Talk of coalition and a too-cosy relationship with Labour could not be further from the mark. Mr Ashdown wants his party to be distinctive, quick on its feet, and critical.

"The easiest thing for the party," he says, "is going to be to take our position where it says, `Whatever the Labour Party spends, we'll spend more.' It's absolutely vital that we don't do that. What we're interested in is targeted taxes for specific goods, efficiently spent, and that is going to be quite difficult.

"It will be the easiest thing for the party to say, `Whatever the Labour government cuts, we will restore.' We mustn't do that. We have to be the party looking at the way money is spent and making sure it is spent wisely.

"The easiest thing is to become the party of big government. I think the future is about finding new ways consistent with progressive politics of being the party of small government. By which I mean government ought to be less and less about doing, and more and more about commissioning.

"We are talking about a structure that diminishes the size of government, national or local, and sub-contracts much of it out. That's going to be very, very difficult for the party, and easily misunderstood." Not least because it smacks of a tilt to the right.

"The easiest thing for the party," he continues, "is to stand still where it is. That is the most dangerous thing. Unless we are prepared to keep moving, particularly on the ideas agenda, then I think that we will find the ground on which we now stand occupied increasingly by the present government. So it is absolutely vital that we take risks to stay at the cutting edge of new thinking in British politics.

"The easy thing will be to say, `We will complain about unemployment without actually tackling it.' And I think we have to think much more radically about unemployment. I want the party to be a radical party, I want it to be thinking ahead, I want it to be intellectually courageous, I want it to take risks with ideas and with policies."

In essence, Mr Ashdown is trying to create the political equivalent of a guerrilla army that hits its opponents hard, moves back and regroups, and strikes again. Unthreatened by New Labour's pragmatism, or the possibility of a desperate Conservative Party dumping William Hague in favour of the formidable Chris Patten or Michael Portillo, Mr Ashdown believes the Liberal Democrats could run rings around the other two parties.

"My belief is that a third party has something different to contribute to British politics. In the presidential Americanisation of British politics we want a third party that is prepared to think, sometimes even to think the unthinkable," he says. "I suspect that politics, and party political conferences, are increasingly going to be converted into wastelands for the exercise of party discipline. I think there is a role for the Liberal Democrats to be the free thinkers and we have to be prepared to take risks with that.

"The ground is moving; we are seeing a change in the shape of the political superstructure in Britain; we are seeing things being brought on to the agenda for a government of our country which fulfils dreams we have had for 100 years. For us, the Scottish parliament was not the end of a three week campaign; it was the end of a 100-year crusade."

But what does all that imply for the future of the party's most distinctive policy: the proposal to increase income tax by a penny, to pay for improvements in education?

"We have to keep that under review," Mr Ashdown says. "If that is the means by which you can deliver better education, then that is the judgement we should take." However, he adds: "If, during the course of the next four years - I don't predict it - but there are other things we can do to achieve the same ends, we have got to be prepared to review it."

The Liberal Democrat leader says the party needs to take risks to reap the political rewards, but he is not going to be tied down by party dogma, any more than Mr Blair has been.

And in that, Mr Ashdown says he has the good fortune of leading a party which is not hidebound. "I don't think there is an old guard of my party. One of the things I admire about the Liberal Democrats is that it is the only party that doesn't have factions. A faction is a group of people who, whatever the issue, you'll be able to predict the position they will take. It is uniquely not true of the Liberal Democrats."

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