The death of Paddy Ashdown, who still had much to give to political debate at the age of 77, is a reminder of the appeal of politicians who occupy the centre ground, even if centrist parties struggle to break through under the UK’s outdated first-past-the-post system.
Lord Ashdown had much in common with The Independent’s values – support for EU membership; internationalism; human rights; social justice and a market economy that is the servant not the master of the people. He wrote regularly on our comment pages.
Like the political class, we too will miss him.
As his successors as Liberal Democrat leader will testify, he was never short of advice on how they should pursue the project he launched as the party’s first leader when the Liberals merged with the Social Democrats in 1988. Even in his seventies, he was still the irrepressible, energetic action man of British politics.
The former Royal Marine and diplomat saw his political mission as a major realignment on the centre-left. He came very close to achieving it at the 1997 general election.
Labour under Tony Blair and the Lib Dems had an unofficial electoral pact in which they did not compete strongly in seats where the other had a good chance of defeating the Conservatives. Ironically, it was too successful.
Blair had intended to invite the Lib Dems into coalition under a plan, inspired by Roy Jenkins, to make the 21st century a “progressive” one by denying the Tories the power they had enjoyed for much of the 20th. Remarkably, Blair tried to go ahead even after winning a landslide. But he was blocked by forces in his own party, including his deputy John Prescott, and the reality of a majority of 179.
Lord Ashdown, despite his initial reservations, loyally backed Nick Clegg when he took the Lib Dems into coalition with the Tories in 2010, but never gave up hope of seeing a realignment of the radical centre.
Deeply saddened by the 2016 referendum result, he believed that Brexit might be the catalyst for such a shakeup, as it cuts across traditional party lines and loyalties. He was a co-founder of More United, a movement inspired by the words of the late Jo Cox, and insisted it should be seen as an asset rather than a threat to the Lib Dems.
The fractious debate on Brexit underlines Lord Ashdown’s longstanding belief: pro-European Labour and Tory MPs have more in common with each other and the Lib Dems than with the leadership of their own parties.
Some Labour backbenchers are deeply disenchanted with Jeremy Corbyn but decided to stay and fight for a Final Say referendum rather than walk out of their party before Brexit is resolved.
They are alarmed by Mr Corbyn’s suggestion that if Labour secures a general election it will go ahead with Brexit. They suspect he is deliberately stalling on the decision to support a referendum if the party fails to get an election, believing that it largely explains why he did not force a vote of no confidence in the government before the Commons began its Christmas break.
Mr Corbyn shares his mentor Tony Benn’s belief in internal Labour Party democracy. But he is out of step with Labour’s 550,000 members on Brexit; they want a referendum and would surely want the party to campaign for Remain at an election, rather for an improved version of Theresa May’s “bad deal”.
He insists he is “not a dictator” and that the party will decide policy. Yet he seems strangely reluctant to implement the one it agreed in September – preferring, like May, to procrastinate and put off hard choices in the hope they can be avoided.
Allies of Mr Corbyn rightly worry that the birth of a new centre party could harm Labour’s prospects at the next election – even if, like the SDP in the 1980s, it failed to sweep the country. Yet Mr Corbyn’s inaction on Brexit makes a breakaway by Labour centrists more likely. If he is not careful, he might unwittingly help Lord Ashdown’s unfinished mission to be accomplished.
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