Exclusive: Lord Ashdown urges British left to start talking - or risk Tory rule 'forever'

Written by @singersz on 10 November 2015 in Diary

Lord Ashdown has called on progressives from across political parties to begin “a conversation about ideas” in order to stop the Conservative party from dominating British politics for years to come.

Speaking to Total Politics, the former Liberal Democrat leader and special forces soldier said the British left resembled a “smoking battlefield” in the wake of the 2015 general election.

He urged moderates from parties such as Labour, the Lib Dems, the SNP and the Greens to get together  – along with likeminded figures from outside politics - to stake out common ground.

Talks could take place on an informal basis over the next few months, he suggested, with questions about “political force” being addressed after the European Union referendum.

Lord Ashdown worked closely with Tony Blair after Labour’s 1992 election defeat in a bid to boost the left’s flagging fortunes. In an exclusive interview with Total Politics this week, the Lib Dem grandee suggested that progressive parties now faced the same challenge as in 1992.

“There is a really big issue that needs to be addressed by the left, which is how do we now put together a sensible force of those who are the modern progressives?

“The left is a sort of smoking battlefield. I think we are facing the short term prospect of a government unconstrained by an effective opposition which is very bad for the country - and bad for the Tories too. And we’re facing in the long term the question I faced in 1992, which was are we looking at the Tories forever?

But Lord Ashdown stressed that Labour under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership was no longer the key vehicle for the left’s revival.

“I think Labour’s absolute dominance of the left no longer applies. This is a much more pluralist left. Labour’s position on the left is now diminished hugely by virtue of its size, by virtue of its defeat and because one element – perhaps the largest element of Labour now under Mr Corbyn – has gone off into the Never Never Land of policies that address the past, not the future.”

He insisted that the process for uniting progressives had to be “organic” at the outset, with no electoral pacts. But the former Lib Dem leader also suggested that more formal arrangements could be put in place after the EU referendum, which is expected to take place in the second half of 2016.

“This is not mechanical. It’s not about electoral pacts, it’s not about ‘you come and join us’. People are feeling quite vulnerable in their tribes. I do think that we’re involved in a process that is rather less about engineering and more about organic growth.

“I think this begins with a conversation about ideas. My guess is that if you’ve got sensible modern progressives in all the political parties in the room, and you started a day’s conference, debate, conversation, you would end up with five key points that you can very easily agree with.

“So I think that’s the way it begins. I think it begins on an informal basis. I think it begins around ideas, not structures. I think it begins with conversations. I think it can then develop, probably through the medium of the referendum, and it’s after the referendum that you begin to address the issue of how do we give this political force.

“In many ways, for the wider politics you might mark this parliament as a pre-referendum parliament and a post-referendum parliament. The referendum is a watershed and I think the amities and co-operation built up between parties then will have a considerable impact on what happens afterwards.”

Asked which parties he envisaged being involved in the conversation, Lord Ashdown insisted it should not be a tribal process.

“I think you would start from a position that it could be anybody who believes in progressive politics, based around the unity of Great Britain.”

He also stressed that political parties did not have all the answers.

“The conversation should also include those outside politics - indeed this is where the most interesting ideas may come from."



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