Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The Liberal Democrats Will Not Be Forming the Next Government and Hung Parliaments Are Rare. So What Is Paddy Ashdown's Party For?

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The Liberal Democrats Will Not Be Forming the Next Government and Hung Parliaments Are Rare. So What Is Paddy Ashdown's Party For?

Article excerpt

What are the Liberal Democrats for? It is the question that will be perpetually asked of the third party in a two-party system, but it enrages the Liberal Democrat leader, Paddy Ashdown.

I can imagine him now, sitting in the garden of his French holiday gite, notebook in hand, preparing his speech for next month's party conference (for that is how he plans to spend some of his holiday), twitching angrily at the thought of all those journalists waiting to ask the "What are you for?" question when he returns to Westminster. They ask it because whereas the other two parties are about winning power, the precise role of the Liberal Democrats is inevitably more ambiguous. At the same time there are three reasons for Ashdown's annoyance at the persistence with which this question arises.

The first is that he thinks he has answered it. For what journalists are partly seeking is a clear definition as to how the Liberal Democrats relate to the larger parties. The pretence of equidistance, where the Liberal Democrats argue that they find Labour and the Conservatives equally distasteful, has been dropped. We know that they will not prop up the Conservatives after the next election. This will end the farce of Ashdown having to spend the bulk of every interview in the run-up to the election refusing to answer what was, in fact, obvious.

Instead he wants to use every opportunity open to him to present his party's policies rather than speculate about what the Liberal Democrats would do in various hypothetical post-election scenarios. His predecessors as Alliance leaders, Lord Owen and Sir David Steel, spent virtually every interview in the 1987 election discussing what would happen if there were a hung parliament. Would they support a minority Labour administration or a Conservative one? Differences emerged between them as Steel signalled he would back Labour, while Owen was more sympathetic to the Conseratives. In the end, the exchanges were rendered irrelevant as Margaret Thatcher was returned with another three-figure majority.

It is worth remembering how rare it is that the electoral system produces a hung parliament. The success of the Alliance in the early eighties created a fashion for assuming that a hung parliament was a highly likely result in election campaigns. Acres of newsprint and hours of broadcasting time were spent speculating about the consequences. The mood continued after the collapse of the Alliance. One of the running themes during the 1992 election, again against the wishes of Ashdown, was the permutations in a hung parliament. Who would Ashdown back?

If PR was the main condition of supporting a minority administration, would Neil Kinnock oblige? What would Ashdown do if Kinnock did not oblige? The questions went on. And the result? John Major won with a majority of 21. Only in February 1974 did an election produce a hung parliament. As one senior Liberal Democrat said to me: "We know hung parliaments are a freak result."

So Ashdown will spend the months leading up to the election making two points about his tactical objectives. He will not support a minority Conservative administration, but, more importantly, his overall aim is to secure as many Liberal Democrat MPs as possible. He will proclaim that it will be a better parliament if there are more Liberal Democrat MPs in it, irrespective of whether there is a majority or minority government.

The second reason why Ashdown will seek a soothing gulp of Beaujolais relates to policy. The shelves of the Liberal Democrats' headquarters in Cowley Street creak with policy documents, many of which distinguish his party from the other two. It is at this point that Ashdown can relax. Let us, as he would wish, take his party on its own merits, away from the party political chessboard on which it is nearly always placed.

In some policy areas the Liberal Democrats will speak alone, as Labour and the Conservatives have blurred their normal dividing lines. …

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