Sunday 23 December 2018

Remembering Paddy Ashdown

Like his genuinely popular and admired successor, Charles Kennedy, Paddy Ashdown cut a charismatic if not avuncular figure among the big beasts and creepy crawlies of the Westminster jungle. As the publisher's blurb for his 2010 autobiography says, "Ashdown’s appeal ... is that he transcends party political allegiances, and is seen as a genuinely honest and decent man unafraid to take on the hardest challenges." The tributes from Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May typify this, with the Sunday schedules rammed with admiring obituaries from all quarters. But apart from his sparkling reputation, which few politicians can ever aspire to, where does his political significance lie?

Contrary to claims that we was the most talented politician never to have held high office, Ashdown was thought of well enough to be put forward for a couple of United Nations posts, being appointed as the UN's high representative - effectively the premier - for Bosnia in the aftermath of the war, topping off a career that saw action in Northern Ireland and Indonesia before moving into diplomacy. In a number of ways, Ashdown's career mirrored that of the officer class in earlier times, beginning with military service on the empire's frontiers, a bit of diplomacy and politics in the middle, and then culminating in the governor's office and a Lords' sinecure.

Much has also been made of his "saving" the Liberal Democrats. When the party was formed in 1988 following the merger of the old Liberals and the Social Democratic Party, a lot of the support the Alliance commanded between the 1983 and 1987 general elections melted away, bleeding mainly back to a Labour Party experiencing a slow recovery under Neil Kinnock. Yet, paradoxically, Ashdown's decision to fish in the same left, anti-Tory political waters as Labour meant the LibDems were able to build up their influence. As someone on the social democratic-leaning wing of the old Liberals, Ashdown positioned the party alongside the mainstream left, occasionally using its more marginalised position to take up sharper positions than Labour felt it was able to. For example, in 1997 Ashdown took the LibDems into the general election promising to raise income tax to pay for education - a total no-no as far as New Labour and mainstream political wisdom was concerned. Under Ashdown and later Kennedy there was also a softening of the anti-Labour rhetoric and more of a stress on attacking the Tories, which meant anti-Tory tactical voting became an important facet of LibDem support. This was typified in the famous Ribble Valley by-election victory in 1991 that came off the back of a massive surge in support for the party while the Labour vote went backwards. A similar feat was repeated later in 1991 in Kincardine and Deeside, again with a lowering of Labour's support, and of the seven by-elections between 1992 and 1997 in Tory-held seats the LibDems took four of them - albeit Labour's support rose significantly in the latter two as liberal-inclined Tories started finding Blair congeal.

Repeated in 1997, Ashdown's then-impressive haul of 44 seats underlined the efficacy of the strategy, and it is credit to Charles Kennedy's political nous that he carried this on. Brent East and Leicester South were taken from Labour in 2003 and 2004 respectively by tacking to Labour's left - chiefly on the Iraq War, but also opposition to Blair's demonisation of asylum seekers, Islamophobia, and authoritarianism played a role too. Building on the Ashdown strategy resulted in 62 seats coming into the LibDem fold at the 2005 election. It is a strange coincidence then that Charlie died just as Nick Clegg's junking of the Ashdown/Kennedy strategy brought the LibDems their worst election result since 1970, and Ashdown's passing comes just as the LibDems are heavily bashing Labour when the moment requires a recapitulation of the strong anti-Tory orientation he pioneered.

Paddy Ashdown then had the misfortune of seeing his third party learn hard lessons about its position vis a vis the duopoly of Westminster politics and what needs to be done to erode it. And then shoving all this political wisdom down the disposal chute of inconvenient memory as Clegg's openly neoliberal faction pursued alignment with the Tories, and Tim Farron and Vince Cable compounded the party's irrelevance by concentrating their ire at Labour. If I was a LibDem and wanted to honour Ashdown's memory, retweeting quotable snippets or gushing retrospectives isn't the way to do it. Paying attention to the strategy that catapulted the LibDems to political relevance and seeking to apply it now is the best tribute to his legacy.


Johny Conspiranoid. said...

Just how did they end up with Nick Clegg?

Anonymous said...

Because there was a postal strike in London when the last of the ballot papers arrived!
Clegg had been the Lib Dem Party Establishments choice to succeed Ming Campbell (indeed Ming was every only a stop gap, but poor poll ratings meant he was eased out early). However in the contest with Chris Huhne, he saw his support ebbing away as Huhne gained support in the Leadership campaign. Party insiders were concerned that whilst Clegg had an early lead in the voting, ballots arriving at the end of the voting period were heavily for Huhne.

In the end Clegg squeaked it by 500 votes, yet many votes were delayed in arriving due to a postal strike. There were discussions about whether the ballot end date should be put back to allow all the votes to be counted, but it was decided not to change this, so thousands of properly cast votes were not counted. Had they been Chris Huhne would have been elected Leader.

Anonymous said...

Though given what ultimately happened to Huhne......