Why I won't let Major in

Paddy Ashdown on why defeating the Conservatives requires more than protest votes
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The Prime Minister's reaction to the local election result was instructive. Stripped of the Churchillian "backs to the wall" rhetoric, all he had to offer people was more of the same.

During my whole adult life, I had never had a clearer sense of political entropy at the top - of a government that is simply running down, bereft of conviction, drained of energy and all too aware that its useful life is over. The reason that the Conservative government is able only to offer more of the same is because it has nothing else to offer. It is too divided and demoralised to reinvent itself.

For my own part, I believe that the verdict of the voters deserves a closer study and a more imaginative approach.

The first conclusion to be drawn is that the turnout was dangerously low. The growing cynicism about politics, as an honourable forum for worthwhile participation, which has been bred by the remoteness and cosiness of Westminster and Whitehall, and fostered by a media often more interested in sensation than citizenship, is taking hold in Britain as it has in other countries. This is no time for complacency. There is a gap to be bridged by all those who care more about democracy than about party. Nolan's recommendations are welcome, indeed overdue, in our back-scratching political system, and should be implemented as soon as possible. The next step should be a fundamental programme of constitutional reform to get power back in the hands of citizens and communities, away from the centre and into the localities.

The second conclusion is that Britain is ready, indeed impatient, for change. If the Tories, desperate to avoid the eventual reckoning with the electorate, manage to hang on until 1997, there will have been 18 years of single-party Conservative government. It cannot be altogether surprising that they have both run out of steam and lost the confidence of the country. Democracy depends on some sort of process of change and renewal, rather than endless stagnation. But, thanks in part to our electoral system, what is essentially a minority government has been put on an artificial life- support system.

On 4 May, the voters showed that they had worked out how to turn the system off. In their millions they voted Labour and Liberal Democrat in such a way as to ensure they defeated the Conservatives. We will continue to make it clear that votes for the Liberal Democrats, as well as being positive votes for better government, whether local or national, are also votes to remove Mr Major and his colleagues.

If, when the election finally comes, the Conservatives lose their majority in Parliament, but seek our support to stay in office, they will not receive it. If the Tories are kicked out of the front door, they must not be allowed to sneak in through the back.

But contrary to some press speculation, that doesn't mean the Liberal Democrats are going soft on Labour. That isn't our role. It isn't our aim. And I am clear that it isn't what people expect of us. They treasure the Liberal Democrats' special contribution, and they show by their votes that they don't want sterile two-party politics.

That brings me to my third conclusion. The British people want and deserve change. But at the same time they are understandably cautious about the so-called "New Labour" Party.

Mr Blair has shown courage and leadership, but has taken only the first steps on a long and steep pathway. The party he leads, more "Old" Labour than "New", is still tied to the trade unions, which pay the bills and control the conferences. Old Labour still stands for socialism and class war. Old Labour has more rebels in Parliament, waiting for their left- wing moment in victory, than even the Tories. Old Labour still hopes to fight the election on red rosettes and big smiles, rather than on carefully costed programmes of realistic reform and an explanation of how the bills will be paid. And in some areas of the constitutional reform agenda, even "New" Labour is showing worrying signs of retreating rather than moving forward.

So, while the British people yearn for change, they want to be sure the change they get is the change they want and the change that Britain needs. That is where the Liberal Democrat vision is so central to Britain's future in the next century. That vision is of a Britain democratic and open in its government, competitive and enterprising in its economy, committed to long-term investment in education, liberal and just in its social policies, respecting and protecting the environment, and unequivocal about our future in Europe. And one of the things Liberal Democrats are determined to change is the culture of our politics - so that parties learn the habit of co- operating for the national interest where they agree, as well as competing for votes at the ballot box.

It will not be sufficient to defeat the Conservatives just by criticism and the harnessing of protest. Securing real, lasting change after the Conservatives requires a clear, positive alternative project - and, even if others fudge it, the Liberal Democrats are determined to provide one.

Liberal Democrats are the guarantee of change in Britain. That is why our party's independence and strength is so important. Our position now is quite clear: no quarter for the Tories, no let-up on Labour. Every Liberal Democrat vote is a vote for Liberal Democrat policies and Liberal Democrat change. Yesterday, the party's national executive joined the party's national policy committee in backing this independent position unanimously.

The Liberal Democrats emerged from last month's local elections stronger than ever. We have more councillors, and control more councils, than the Conservatives. In many of Labour's heartlands, we are now the principal, sometimes the only, opposition. We have expanded our ground, confirmed our independence, and are now the strongest liberal party in Britain for 60 years.

The task for the Liberal Democrats now is to build on our success. We will fight the next election on a programme that is visionary, distinctly liberal, bold in its ambition, clear in its priorities and honest in its costing.

Our aim in that election? Quite simple. To increase Liberal Democrat parliamentary representation substantially, and then to use all the power we can achieve to ensure that, after the election, Britain does not lurch from disaster to disappointment, but instead takes a long, sure stride towards the better future that most people want. That is what we shall ask people to vote for when they vote Liberal Democrat.