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Paddy Ashdown: The Chard Speech

Paddy Ashdown on realignment; the Guildhall, Chard, Somerset, 9 May 1992.

‘A broader movement dedicated to winning the battle of ideas’

Sensible politicians take time after a general election result to reflect on its implications for their country and for their parties. So I do not intend – and nor do I advise any Liberal Democrat – to rush to premature conclusions about our strategy and tactics for the next election, before we have all come to terms with the lessons of the last. So my purpose this afternoon is not so much to set out a settled viewpoint as to map out a starting point for what I hope will be a broad-ranging discussion about our strategy following the 1992 election.

We Liberal Democrats have travelled far since we established ourselves as a new party just four years ago. We emerge from this election as a united party with a stronger team in Parliament, and with a stronger organisation outside Parliament too. Our membership is growing; our finances are secure; our policies are established and respected; and our identity as a distinctive third force is recognized, positive and robust.

This time it is not we, but Labour, who must cope with internal division, financial jeopardy and a fundamental reappraisal of role and purpose. And, unlike Labour, Liberal Democrats have substantially met the political and electoral targets we set for ourselves when we began to plan for what we all identified as a developmental general election two years ago. In sum, we are on target and on track in the strategy which we set for ourselves. We have an effective base from which to move ahead, and real opportunities before us.

The forces of change and reform

But this does not mean that we can absolve ourselves from a rational consideration of what happens next. Those who sit back in politics can quickly find that others have moved on. As we move now into the second stage in the building of our party, it would be foolish to compromise the long-term strategy which has served us so well. But it would be equal folly to ignore the new opportunities which that strategy has now created. Yes, we have made encouraging progress since the debacle of 1988. But Britain still has a Conservative Government at Westminster. Yes, we have won many of the arguments for change. But Britain still lacks a powerful movement to make change happen. Yes, we have built an effective campaigning party of opposition. But Britain still lacks a credible, electable alternative government to the Tories.

These three deficiencies mark our task in this parliament. It is this: to create the force powerful enough to remove the Tories; to assemble the policies capable of sustaining a different government; and to draw together the forces in Britain which will bring change and reform. And in pursuit of these aims, here is the first fact we have to confront. After thirteen years in power, and at the bottom of a recession, and after the Labour Party has done everything it could to transform its policies and its popular image, the Conservatives retained a comfortable majority in the House of Commons on only 42 percent of the vote. And boundary changes are likely to improve the Conservative position once again in this parliament.

So now we have to face this danger – that, unless there is a change, Britain is in jeopardy of becoming entrenched in a system of almost permanent one-party Conservative government: elected by a minority but able to exercise the exclusive power of a majority.

What does this mean for those millions in Britain who are shut out from the Conservative view of how society should be? The poor, the unemployed, the homeless, those who have lost and will increasingly lose the small luxuries of hope as our public services continue to decline, our environment continues to get dirtier, and our pride in a compassionate and caring society withers away in the face of a continued Conservative assault on the things we took for granted as part of a civilized society only a few years ago. As we now contemplate our strategy for the years ahead, let us never forget that these are the people who sit huddled outside, waiting for us to get it right.

And what would a near-permanent Conservative hegemony mean for the health of our democracy? Many of the imperfections and injustices in our political system – the overweening power of the executive, the absence of proper protection for personal liberty, unfair voting, excessive secrecy, a Conservative-dominated press, the centralisation of power – all these were tolerated by many in Britain, precisely because, from time to time, power changed hands. Are they still to be tolerated if Britain is becoming a one-party state? Are we prepared to be witness to the slow death of pluralism within our democracy?

These are questions which will worry not just opposition politicians and the wider public. Many thoughtful Conservatives will also be concerned about the implications of their victory for the health of our democratic system.

Mr Major is entitled to celebrate his victory. It was a considerable personal achievement. But a wise Prime Minister might also reflect for a moment on whether he won because of positive enthusiasm for what he promised, or because of fear of what Labour would do instead. There was certainly little sign during the election of any positive vision of the Conservative future – nor is there now. Just the remnants of Thatcherism watered down with a spoonful of sugar.

Yet good government depends on the positive support of the people; on an effective opposition, and on the possibility of change. So it is absolutely essential now that everyone in each of the parties, opposition and government, comes to terms with the significance of the political situation that we face.

‘Labour can no longer win on their own’

And no party needs to do more to rethink than today’s Labour Party. It is natural for Labour to look for alibis to lessen the pain of their fourth defeat. They will blame the tabloid newspapers, or say that their policies were misunderstood. They will blame the professional campaign for which they were queuing up to take the credit only hours before the polls closed. They will even say that the voters didn’t mean to vote the way they did.

But what really matters for Labour is not the excuses they find for the past, but what they do in the future. For some in the Labour Party, the answer is ‘one more heave’. But that is not a strategy, it is a pipe dream. Labour can no longer win on their own. They are a drag factor on others who fight the Conservatives. They have now lost their historic role as the sole left-of-centre party capable of winning government and defeating the Conservatives. The Tory-Labour duopoly is finished.

If there is one hopeful sign in today’s Labour Party it is that some, including perhaps some in leadership positions, are beginning to recognise that fact. If the careful and cautious words about consensus and the wider debate from Messrs Smith and Gould are meant to signify a coded recognition of the reality facing Labour, then this is a shift of historic importance for the whole of British politics, and one which Liberal Democrats should welcome.

But Labour has to change in other ways too. Labour will remain unacceptable to the electorate for as long as they resist one-member-one-vote in their internal democracy and preserve the block vote and institutionalised union influence over their policies and their leaders. Labour will remain unacceptable to the electorate as long as they resist full-hearted acceptance of a liberal market economy, based on competition, enterprise and consumer choice, and remain instinctively the party of producer interests, corporatist state government and bureaucratic power. Labour will remain unacceptable to the electorate for as long as they resist constitutional reform and, especially, a fair system of voting for the House of Commons, in the mistaken hope that the ‘winner takes all’ status quo will deliver them one last chance at power on their own. And Labour will remain unacceptable to the electorate for as long as most people’s experience of Labour government is of remote, authoritarian Labour local authorities which offer neither value for money nor pluralist, open administration.

Let’s not mince our words. Millions of people feel let down by the result on April 9th. They are the millions who voted for change but found that Labour could not provide it. The question for Labour now is, can they come to terms with the reality of their position – and can they match the mood of the 1990s in order to become a force for change? Or will they cling to their old myths and old ideas, blocking progress and holding up the defeat of the Tories?

Winning the argument of values and policies

So what about we Liberal Democrats? How should we conduct ourselves in the months ahead? I have little sympathy with those who say that, having won back our position in politics, we can now be satisfied with being no more than a party of local government, or a test-bed for new political ideas. And I have no sympathy for those who believe that politics is the art of waiting for something to turn up. As a third party, these two options are simply not open to us. We have to maintain our momentum. And we have to take risks to shape and influence events in our favour, rather than allow others to shape them for us.

And we have to do something else as well. We have to continue to win the argument of values and policies on which we Liberal Democrats have been embarked over the last three years. In the 1970s, it was the new right which captured the intellectual initiative from the old left. And, more than anything else, it was the slothful self-satisfaction and indolence of the left’s response which led to its downfall as an alternative force for government in Britain. Now the left, in the shape of today’s Labour Party, have abandoned socialism, because it made them unelectable. But they have found nothing to replace it and now drift dangerously unanchored in a period of change, without a convincing creed of their own to preach, or a firm set of ideas to cling to.

But the vacuum now is not only on the left. The general election cruelly exposed the intellectual exhaustion on the Tories, too. They have abandoned Thatcherism, because it made them unelectable. And all they have found to replace it with is the Citizen’s Charter – at best only part of an idea, the least important part, and a pathetically small thing to place in such a large hole and proclaim as the centrepiece of a four-year government.

The fact is, when it comes to new ideas, the two old parties in Britain lie becalmed. It is our task, as Liberal Democrats, to set our sails to the new winds which will blow through the nineties; to establish the new frontier between individual choice and collective responsibility; to draw up the practical means to change our economic system in order to respond to the environmental challenge; to liberate the political power of the individual within a practical system of government; to build a powerfully competitive economy, based on individual enterprise and founded on a flexible labour market; to create a taxation system whose purpose is not just to redistribute wealth, but also and perhaps chiefly, to redistribute opportunity; to extend ownership as a means of spreading wealth and diffusing economic power; to establish a network of individual rights which will fill the gap left by the death of collectivism; to rediscover pride in being English, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish within a Britain that is big enough to allow different cultures and diffused government to flourish; to respond to the decline of the nation state in Europe without recreating the nation state on a European scale; to find practical means to strengthen global institutions so as to increase our capacity to act to preserve world peace and respond to global catastrophe.

‘A non-socialist alternative to the Conservatives’

These are some of the policy challenges which face Liberal Democrats in mapping out the new policies our country will need as we approach the turn of the century. But will it be sufficient if we formulate these ideas just amongst ourselves? My answer is no. Our contribution, if it is to be successful, must reach out beyond the limits of our own party. Our role is to be the catalyst, the gathering point for a broader movement dedicated to winning the battle of ideas which will give Britain an electable alternative to Conservative government.

Let me stress, I want a ferment of ideas, not the clicking of calculators; this is about putting together an agenda for our country for the next election, not adding together opposition voters in various constituencies at the last. Indeed, I do not believe that mathematically constructed pacts and alliances are the way forward, either for Liberal Democrats or for others. At best they would be a waste of precious time – at worst positively damaging. What is, however, in both our interest and that of the country, is to work with others to assemble the ideas around which a non-socialist alternative to the Conservatives can be constructed, with Liberal Democrats at the centre of the process and a reformed voting system as the starting point.

I have already suggested that we should establish a National Electoral Reform Commission, to consider the most appropriate form of proportional representation and to set out the case for reform. I hope that the new Labour leader, as well as many others interested in this subject, including Conservative supporters, will respond positively. Labour’s own very interesting deliberations within the Plant Committee would be an important contribution to the Commission’s deliberations. What this means for Liberal Democrats is that we must be much less exclusive in our approach to politics than we were in the last parliament, and much more inclusive to others in this one. We must look outward to the concerns of wider sections of our community. We must learn to work with others in a common cause. And we must have the self-confidence to risk our ideas in debate with others who seek the same basic aims in circumstances which are not wholly under our control.

Nothing more clearly showed Labour’s failure to ditch their old arrogance and come to terms with their new realities than one recent suggestion that, as an example of Labour’s new consensus approach, other parties might generously be allowed to give evidence to Labour’s present committee on electoral reform and their future one on social justice. There could be no surer way of blighting the birth of the new politics in Britain than requiring it to be delivered in a specially constructed bungalow annex in the grounds of Transport House!

What we need is a new forum and a debate on a much wider scale – one which is owned by no particular party and encompasses many who take no formal part in politics, but wish to see a viable alternative to Conservatism in Britain.

So, as we enter this new parliament, here are the tasks which I believe lie ahead for us Liberal Democrats. First, to continue to build our strength on the ground as an independent and distinctive force. Second, to continue our energetic and courageous pursuit of new ideas and new policies, drawing as much as possible on those outside our formal membership as well as inside it. And third, to be prepared, not just to take part in it, but to provide leadership for the wider debate about the construction of post-socialist, non-Conservative Britain, confident in our own ideas, clear about our objectives, but flexible in our approach to others.

These are not simple tasks. It is always safer to take shelter in our own exclusivity than to include others in the circle of debate. It is always easier to celebrate our own purity than to venture outside the traditional boundaries of party politics. It is always more straightforward to deal in our own narrow certainties than to share conclusions on a wider scale. But I believe Liberal Democrats are ready for this challenge. The last two years have proved that we are on a rising curve, while Labour is on a falling one, but both of us, and others, have a role to play. We are confident of our beliefs and clear of our role, but we are not too proud to share and sharpen our ideas with those who want to cooperate.

It is time for us to begin the second stage in our development, in which we use our strength to lead the political debate on to ground where the Conservative Government can be defeated at the next election, and bring to our country the fundamental reforms and changes to which this party has always been committed.

Taken from Duncan Brack and Tony Little (eds.), Great Liberal Speeches (Politico’s, 2001).