In the wake of Paddy Ashdown’s death, I have opened his diaries 1988-1997 for the first time. I got a copy for a couple of quid a few years ago and they have languished on a shelf ever since. The second half of the period he covers are dominated by his talks with Tony Blair about their hoped for re-alignment of the centre left, but both were stymied by tribal concerns – not necessarily their own (or else they wouldn’t have started talking to each other in the first place). Over innumerable dinners at Tony’s Islington pad and many glasses of ‘fine claret’ (Tony told Paddy that Derry Irvine was his wine merchant) they edged tremulously towards an accommodation – a full agreement seemed beyond them. Tony told Paddy the project could split his party. Paddy told Tony his party could disappear. I suspect neither would have minded too much if the other’s fears were realised. If only they could have done a short job swap for a while everything might have worked out! In 1993, still bruised by Major’s narrow victory in 1992 they both feared he could retrieve the Tories' fortunes sufficiently for the opposition to lose again. But as Labour’s poll ratings consistently improved, Ashdown became increasingly impatient with Tony’s hedging, vagueness and non-commitment. I could imagine them both performing on Strictly in a dance where neither side touches each other but retain a love which dare not speak its name. The electorate blew the project out of the water. By 1997 Tony believed the real coalition now existed solely within the Labour Party – a coalition which had sufficient support in England alone to win a majority in the Commons.
One of the pleasures of reading diaries such as this is that with the benefit of hindsight you know the answers to some of the ‘what if’ questions one assumes they would have asked themselves at the time. The biggest question for them was how to create the so-called realignment of the centre left to end the hegemony of the right. But an approach to this question based largely on the basis of how many parliamentary seats can be won is always going to be inadequate. Labour standing candidates down in the South West (Paddy thought Tony was interested in this) in exchange for the LibDems standing down in Labour targets elsewhere creates tensions inside party machines and memberships. Such a pact only has a shallow tactical value and doesn’t address the more profound change needed to achieve the goals of ‘the project.’ The realignment of the centre left may have been better served by a hung parliament, or a Labour victory with a small majority and LibDem participation. The question is what if either of these things had happened in 1997?
Obviously for either outcome to have occurred the Tories would not have been as smashed as they actually were. This could have been quite useful in helping Labour and LibDems bond a bit more. It may – given LibDem insistence – have led to electoral reform and the introduction of PR. The irony there is the likelihood that those in both parties not keen on ‘the project’ would have split off to form their own purified parties. The collaborators would then have sought the support of left leaning Tories to solidify their position in what would become, basically the Party of European Social Democrats.
I doubt such a party would have sufficiently addressed the underlying causes of our current economic woes, but it may have had a reasonable stab at heading off some of the worst excesses found in the response to them, such as self-defeating austerity (which now should be recognised for what it is, namely a desire to reduce the role and size of government). On the other hand . .
Anyway, enough of this. It’s time to put Paddy’s diaries back on the shelf and reflect on today’s what if questions afresh. No. 10 will be war gaming them even during Midnight Mass.