Ashdown: which party card?

A covert coalition

Lib-Lab agreement marks another step towards bourgeois realignment

In politics, as in life, every virtue has its corresponding vice. When a politician seems unable to distinguish between the virtue of leadership and the vice of diktat, between decisiveness on the one hand and mere impatience and impetuosity on the other, judgement and competence are bound to be questioned.

Such has been the deserved fate of Paddy Ashdown in the week since the publication of the Labour-Liberal Democrat joint statement on extending their political cooperation. By a sublime irony, a document that set out to foster a spirit of unity has succeeded only in actualising the latent tensions between and within the two parties. Everything about the statement - not just its content but also the manner of its provenance and presentation - has thrown into sharp relief the contradictions inherent in the protracted courtship between Blair and Ashdown. It is the ambivalent relationship between the two leaders, rather than between their parties, that lies at the heart of the present crisis.

Before we look at the document, let us be clear about the circumstances which gave birth to it: namely, Labour’s decidedly unenthusiastic response to the Jenkins report on electoral reform. Whatever Ashdown may aver to the contrary, it seems highly improbable that Blair will hold a referendum on PR before the next election. With a Commons majority of 179 and a cabinet and party divided over the merits of PR, the prime minister would be foolish to pursue the matter at this stage, even if this means failing to honour a manifesto commitment and leaving his Liberal Democrat counterpart in the lurch. In some respects, the joint statement can be seen as a sort of consolation prize, intended to soothe the wounds to Ashdown’s amour propre caused by his failure to deliver on Jenkins. Widening the remit of the Joint Consultative Committee (JCC) and even endowing it with some spurious added authority must have seemed an attractive option.

The first thing to say about their statement itself is that this paean to the value of consultation was contrived in secret. Ashdown’s background in special forces and ‘the foreign office’ evidently taught him the value of the ‘need to know’ principle. Only the two leaders and a small coterie of trusted advisers appear to have been involved in producing a document with profound political implications. Such is the arrogance and the contempt for democracy and openness evinced by these two paragons of ‘inclusive politics’. No wonder that their respective parliamentary parties were angry and resentful at having been confronted by a fait accompli. Even John Prescott was not informed and was duly “infuriated” (The Daily Telegraph November 17).

With its combination of blandness and opacity, the joint statement shows all the signs of having undergone a large number of redrafts. Leaving aside the usual Blairite flummery of solemn aims and objectives - the verbal equivalent of Father Tony’s infuriatingly complacent grin - the core of the statement contains a fundamental contradiction. On the one hand, we read: “Of course we are two sovereign and independent parties working together where we agree and opposing each other where we do not.” Of course. Yet in the next breath the document tells us: “Our parties will continue to offer different choices to the British people in the ballot box whenever the appropriate opportunity arises” (my italics). The logic of this sentence can surely not have escaped its authors. The suggestion is that there may be circumstances in which it is not appropriate to offer the voters different choices: ie, the possibility of electoral pacts and virtual coalition agreements cannot be excluded. It was this proposition that understandably sounded the tocsin in the ears of many Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs and party activists.

Whatever the ambiguities implicit in this contradiction, at least one thing is made crystal clear: the aim of closer cooperation between the two parties is to exclude the Tories from power for the foreseeable future: their objective is “to ensure the ascendancy of progressive politics in Britain, against a Conservative Party which seems determined to travel further and further to the right”. The “ascendancy of progressive politics” is Blair-speak for his vision of a 21st century dominated by what he has the impudence to call the “radical centre-left” but which in reality will bear the stamp of his own distinctly rightwing, authoritarian politics.

The joint statement reflects not so much the interests of two parties as the will and ambitions of two leaders, whose motives are not difficult to divine: anybody who has read the suggestively titled book The unfinished revolution by Philip Gould, a leading ideologist of New Labour, cannot fail to understand that Blair’s ultimate aim is not coalition with the Liberal Democrats, but a kind of party political Anschluss- the effective absorption of the Liberal Democrats into a unified ‘Greater New Labour’. Ashdown’s motives are equally apparent: to exercise real power at last, ideally at the head of the Liberal Democrats, but if necessary in Blair’s party. As one newspaper put it very well, “Mr Ashdown ... cannot really want to lead his party into a third election and is looking for a proper job where he gets to make decisions which are not immediately voted down by a polytechnic of obstreperous local councillors” (The Independent November 16).

Reaction to the joint statement by the Liberal Democrat parliamentary party was swift and hostile, but in part based on a misapprehension. The final draft stepped back from a detailed agenda and in fact limits itself to a review of the JCC’s work with a view to extending cooperation. References to specific areas in which the JCC’s remit might be broadened, such as health, education, welfare reform and so forth, are at present merely speculative. Nonetheless, the speculation was enough to convince many Liberal Democrat members that they were being bounced into a situation where their teeth would be drawn in criticising Labour’s social policy.

On the same day that the statement was published by the No10 press office, Ashdown was compelled to call a meeting of Liberal Democrat MPs in order to explain himself. Roy Jenkins - the real eminence grise behind the whole project - was wrenched away from his claret for long enough to give his personal support to Ashdown’s initiative. After more than three hours of heated debate, in which he persisted in maintaining that there was still a real possibility of a referendum on PR before the next election, Ashdown won a vote in favour of the statement by 44 to two. One of the two MPs to vote against was Simon Hughes (Liberal Democrat member for Bermondsey and his party’s health spokesman), who looks likely to be a key figure in coordinating continued opposition to closer cooperation with Labour. Hughes’s position, understandably enough, is that strong leadership appears more important to Ashdown than democratic participation. He questions “whether the strategy of increasing national agreement is either appropriate or acceptable without both parties, by democratic decision, being signed up to deliver it. My concern is that the party was forced into making a decision that may not have been taken if there had been a proper democratic process” (The Independent November 14).

Ashdown successfully negotiated another hurdle on November 16 at a meeting of the party’s federal executive, gaining the support of 15 out of 19 members. But this ‘victory’ had its cost in the form of Ashdown’s forced acceptance of a federal executive motion to the effect that the Liberal Democrats remain committed to replacing the Tories as the official party of opposition and eventually to forming a government in their own right. Desperate to avoid a special conference at which the joint statement would be debated at length, Ashdown now accepts that a national ballot of all Liberal Democrat members is “the most decisive, quicker and cheaper option of settling the matter” (The Guardian November 17). Arrangements for a ballot could be concluded at the executive’s next meeting on December 7 and the whole matter sorted out one way or the other before Christmas. His speech to the federal executive involved some notable back-peddling: a coalition with Labour was dismissed as “inconceivable” and the widening of cooperation with Labour envisaged by the joint statement was characterised as “the last step” in the Liberal Democrats’ strategy of “constructive opposition”. Such cooperation as there might be would have to be in “tightly defined and carefully controlled” areas of policy (The Independent November 17).

Palliatives of this kind seem unlikely to make much impression on Ashdown’s opponents in the party. A ginger group calling itself the Campaign for Liberal Democracy, consisting of MPs, peers and local councillors, is in the process of formation as a national channel for Liberal Democrat hostility to the idea of any further rapprochement with Labour. The group’s main argument is that Labour is in the business of co-opting and then killing off the Liberal Democrats as a viable independent force. Credibility was added to such fears by an embarrassing Millbank letter outlining Labour’s plans for a ‘dirty tricks’ offensive against the Liberal Democrats at local level. The letter had been drafted on the very eve of the joint statement’s publication. In reality such duplicity is a normal part of political warfare, but its revelation at this particular time was unfortunate, to say the least.

Opposition to the joint statement by Labour members has been muted in comparison with their Liberal Democrat counterparts. The mass of the parliamentary party remain like so many rabbits, frozen in timorous immobility by the searchlights of the Millbank Gestapo. What passes for the left wing of the Party in the form of “the usual suspects” from the Campaign Group of left social democrats has produced rumblings that are as ineffectual as they are predictable. They are no doubt waiting for Blair to falter before making a more serious move. In the meantime, the prime minister is unlikely to lose much sleep about threats from his left.

The ‘Jenkins problem’ continues to bedevil the Blair-Ashdown relationship. In a written answer to a parliamentary question, Blair states that no date for a referendum on electoral reform has yet been set, but that it should be held “at the earliest possible moment it is sensible to do so” (The Independent November 12). Little comfort in this meaningless phrase-mongering for poor Paddy. Whistling in the dark, he told Radio Four’s The World This Weekend of his conviction that Blair is “intellectually and emotionally committed” to electoral reform: “The prime minister has moved his position from being unpersuaded and hostile to PR, to warm and presumed to be in favour of it. That is not insignificant.”

The big question, of course, is - where are the two parties, or rather their respective leaders, really heading? In this connection it is useful to recall a few words from a Dimbleby lecture given some years ago by Roy Jenkins: “Sometimes coalitions are overt; sometimes they are covert. I do not think the distinction greatly matters. The test is whether those within the coalition are closer to each other, and to the mood of the nation they seek to govern, than they are to those outside their ranks.” In the same interview with The World This Weekend, Ashdown admitted that a form of coalition on the continental model - in which the Liberal Democrats would presumably play a role similar to that played for a long time by the German FDP - would be an inevitable consequence of a reformed electoral system. Such a coalition, embodying the creation of what Ashdown called “a progressive liberal centre” would become “the dominant governing force of our time”. In the interim, it seems abundantly clear that what the two leaders want is a covert coalition, in which the Liberal Democrats, in return for some enhancement of their status at leadership level, give their support to Blair’s “radical centre-left” administration for the next century.

What is also beyond doubt is that the correlation of political forces in Britain is in the process of significant change. On the periphery, the accelerated march of the SLP into the political graveyard serves to emphasise the vacuum that needs to be filled on the left. New Labour’s abandonment of any pretence of representing the working class, along with the advent of PR and coalition government, will almost certainly lead to a Labour split. The ensuing period of fluidity should not be viewed merely as a rightward realignment of bourgeois political forces. A reaction in opposition to it, looking to the left, will emerge. However marginalised and demoralised the left appears at present, the new political environment that Blair is attempting to create will provide opportunities for communist intervention in order to aid the left’s revival.

Maurice Bernal