Why Paddy's party still matters

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It is tempting to conclude that the Liberal Democrats are, for the time being, an unimportant sideshow. As the Labour leader transforms his party from a narrow sect into a broad church, there seems to be less and less need for a Lib Dem faith.

Events today are likely only to strengthen the view that the party is sliding into obscurity and irrelevance. The Liberal Democrat spring conference in Scarborough will almost certainly be overshadowed by the Labour Scottish conference as Tony Blair's plan to ditch Clause IV is put to the party faithful.

Nor is Paddy Ashdown's low-profile leadership likely to challenge those who would write off his party. He is keeping his head down. Aside from his forays into foreign parts, his impact in recent months has been minimal. In an interview we publish today, he sounds like a politician marking time, watching events rather than leading and defining them.

But we should not mistake reticence for failure. Despite Labour's resurgence, the Liberal Democrats retain a strong following. With a steady 14 per cent backing in opinion polls, their support has dipped only slightly since the general election. In terms of seats - 23 in the Commons, more than 4,600 on local councils and two in Europe - they are Britain's largest third party in 60 years. Policies pioneered by the party, such as prioritising education, are becoming the conventional wisdom.

Mr Ashdown's party will be ready for battle come the next general election, armed with the results of a wide-ranging policy review. The Liberal Democrats have a solid regional base, particularly in the South-west. They will be aided by an electorate that has become increasingly adept at tactical voting.

In addition the Blair effect is double-edged. True, it may persuade some disgruntled Tories, even former Liberal Democrats, to jump across the political divide into the open arms of New Labour. But just as likely it will assuage the fears that many voters had in 1992 of switching from the Conservatives to the Liberal Democrats for fear of letting Labour into power.

If Labour does form the next government, the influence of a strong Liberal Democrat presence in parliament could be vital. Mr Blair's party would emerge triumphant, yet not fully reconstructed, still prone to old ways and the influence of special interests. Ranged against it would be a Tory party in the full throes of post-defeat recrimination. In this situation a party that speaks for no special lobbies and that upholds many of the virtues of community and decentralised power, would be an important corrective. The Liberal Democrats are such a party. Don't write them off.