Podium: Paddy Ashdown - Britain Has Five Political Parties from a Lecture to the Royal Society of Arts on Proportional Representat Ion Given by the Leader of the Liberal Democrats

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BRITAIN IS now embarked upon what I have called a historic decade of reform and modernisation - and not just of the constitution: a period the like of which comes along to us rarely more than twice each century. In this project the Liberal Democrats and Labour are natural partners. And I hope that we will continue to be so - for there is much work to be done together.

The splits in the Conservative Party over Europe are deep and probably unbridgeable. The recent departure of two Conservative MEPs - though, in my view, premature - is nevertheless deeply significant.

But though Europe is the flashpoint, the divisions in the Conservative Party now reach far beyond this single issue. More than at any other point this century, the Conservative Party is now two parties - two parties at war with one another - who are held together not by common beliefs, but only by electoral expediency. It is a loveless marriage, held together by the strait-jacket of First Past the Post. But slowly, as the strait-jacket is loosened, the marriage is unravelling. The potential of Proportional Representation {PR} to jemmy open cracks in our party monoliths is not limited to the Conservative Party. The Labour Party, too, though it hides it better, is irrevocably split. Not over Europe, this time, but over socialism. One part of the Labour Party believes in it. One part does not. And in the middle, a few tortured souls run around desperately trying to redefine it to cover the latest development. There are today not three, but five political parties in British politics. Two Conservative Parties. And two Labour Parties too. And Old Labour are just as far from influence and power as the Conservatives. In the Labour Party, too, there are hints of what may be to come. The effective deselection of Old Labour MEPs, for which New Labour has opportunistically used this year's change in voting system as an excuse, but which would probably have happened anyway. The refusal to approve Dennis Canavan for the Scottish elections, for little more than being an old-style socialist. The setting up of Arthur Scargill's Socialist Labour Party. Under our current system a breakaway of the left is not impossible, and they could well be pushed into it, for Tony Blair would not miss them. But it could come about only from total desperation, for it would be doomed from the start. …