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Ashdown pushes for cross-party realignment

July 4, 2016 3:01 PM
By Mark Pack

Former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown is working a new 5-point cross-party progressive platform around which to mobilise a grassroots movement to support candidates who sign up to it. The intention is to harness political forces beyond simply the Liberal Democrats, but to do so using a platform which is deeply rooted in Liberal Democrat ideas - and which pretty much any Lib Dems would be happy to sign up to.

Serious effort is being put into the idea, including initial conversations with Labour MPs. The odds of creating an effective grassroots movement are improved by Ashdown's decision to involve Austin Rathe, the former Head of Membership at the Lib Dems, who has a strong track record of using digital to run campaigns and enthuse volunteers.

The key, however, will be how attractive the 5-point platform is to those on the centre left disillusioned or driven out by Labour's current infighting and even those on the centre who may have voted Tory now and again but who don't like a Tory party in which leadership candidates are outbidding each other in their enthusiasm to talk tough on immigration.

(There are very few reasons to lament Boris Johnson's demise. One of the few, however, is that part of what did for him was his post-referendum warm words about freedom of movement for people. They went down very badly amongst Tory MPs, a sign of how those who support freedom of movement and have previously voted Tory may find that party an even more uncomfortable home in the near future.)

Ashdown's plans are not an official initiative, but Tim Farron is aware of them and has not tried to veto them. Indeed, they fit with Farron's own willingness to keep political options open at a time of such political uncertainty and instability.

Moreover, Ashdown's plans are not the only such ones in town, with the Lib/Lab cooperation initiative featuring Norman Lamb covered in Lib Dem Newswire #75 going ahead and Vince Cable stoking talk of a 48 Movement to fight for a progressive agenda across traditional party lines. (A note about the use of '48 Movement' and 'We Are The 48' - I've been struck by how uneasy such phrases make some in Scotland given that equivalent terminology was also adopted by some of the most nasty online voices after the Scottish referendum.)

Is this all worth it? It is possible that a successful Labour coup, a new Tory leader and no early general election will make this all look like an odd passing fancy by Christmas, with normal party lines well established. But none of those is a certainty and the anger over the referendum result is widespread. This may be a moment of political realignment, and that makes it useful to remember some lessons from the past.

During the latter part of his time as Liberal Democrat leader, Paddy Ashdown was the prime mover in talks and arrangements with Labour, then led by Tony Blair. Those led successfully to secret, informal and successful cooperation at election time - such as the parties both attacking the Tories on the same issues in a complementary way and limited coordination over selection of target seats.

They also led to the Cook-Maclennan talks, which resulted in a series of constitutional reforms enacted that makes the Liberal Democrat record in government look extremely paltry. But Blair kept on putting off supporting electoral reform, with the Jenkins Commission killed by Labour figures almost as soon as it was published and Blair never willing to make it an issue he would lead on.

This all fed growing disquiet in the Lib Dems about what cooperation would mean longer term for the future of the two parties - with even merger being speculated on. So once the time Paddy Ashdown stood down as leader in 1999 (and indeed part of the reason he did so), Labour-Lib Dem cooperation went into the deep freeze.

All in, that mixed record points both to the need for caution tempered with the political reality that such cooperation led to the most successful period ever at getting Lib Dem constitutional and political reforms introduced. Scottish devolution - with PR; Welsh devolution - with PR; London devolution - with PR; a powerful Freedom of Information Act; incorporating the European Human Rights Convention in UK law; removing nearly all hereditary peers from the House of Lords; controls over political donations; the list goes on - and it's not made up of minor matters.

Even the flawed reforms to controls over constituency expenditure gave us the national expense documentation which Channel 4 has been investigating so assiduously and the Electoral Commission - the independent body that has taken the Tories to court successfully over the current scandal.

This time round, Europe is likely to have the mantle that political reform had then. The risks are even greater given the weaker situation the Lib Dems find themselves in. Having only 8 MPs means that even a small handful defections, for example, would dominate the Parliamentary Party. But if Britain's future in Europe is one of the prizes at stake. they will be risks worth running provided that the right gamble can be assembled.

What do you make of Paddy Ashdown's plans? Join the discussion on the Lib Dem Newswire Facebook post here.