Lord Ashdown, the former Liberal Democrat leader, is calling for the progressive forces in British politics not to retreat into post-election tribalism but to work together to try to agree a broad policy agenda for a future non-Tory government.
Ashdown is the most senior politician on the centre-left since the election to call for political cooperation among progressive forces, a move that would effectively end Nick Clegg’s policy of placing the Liberal Democrats politically equidistant between the main two parties.
Ashdown suggests the Lib Dems, Labour and the Greens, along with others interested in reform, should set up a convention to discuss a joint progressive agenda. He stressed Labour and the Lib Dems had to maintain their independence, and he was not in favour of electoral pacts on seats, or any kind of formal organisational cooperation.
Ashdown, who was appointed by Clegg to be the Liberal Democrats’ election co-ordinator, said: “I think there is a case for creating a framework before the European referendum where the progressive forces come together.”
He told the Guardian it was time to end the fractures on the left: “As we – all of us on the left and centre-left – survey the wreckage around us after the last election, we should ask ourselves this question: is this the moment for us to retreat into tribalism, as we always do? My answer to that question is ‘no’.
“There is much we disagree about, but there is more that we agree on. The environment, civil liberties, internationalism; how to build a strong economy within the context of a fair society; how to devolve power to our nations and communities in a way which preserves our national unity, not threatens it; the need to tackle the intolerable gap of inequality which will soon threaten our social cohesion as well as our economic success.
“Above all how, by working sensibly together where we are able to, we can save Britain from a government which, whatever David Cameron’s instincts, is now increasingly driven by its right wing who are hell bent on policies which will threaten our social cohesion, our national unity, our place in Europe and our standing in the wider world.”
Ashdown said he accepted Labour’s first instinct would be to return to tribalism, especially during the current leadership election “but they will soon realise that the old tribalism will not solve their problems”.
He said: “I am throwing a stone into the millpond to see how others respond to the ripples that come out of it.” Neither of the Liberal Democrat leadership contenders, Norman Lamb and Tim Farron, have so far spoken in any depth about co-operation with Labour.
Ashdown said: “I think that there is now a real case for the rassemblement des forces progressif, as the French president François Mitterrand would have called it, except, and this is the difference, that last time this was attempted it was possible because of the power of Labour and above all the power of Tony Blair. Blair was the polarity around whom you had to gather to make that work. But the election has shown that we now live in a much more pluralist political climate and Labour no longer enjoys the same position on the left.”
Labour is likely at the moment to spurn Ashdown’s olive branch, pointing to the Liberal Democrat’s eight seats and the UK’s rejection of voting reform in 2011. But given the scale of Labour’s electoral mountain in 2020, some Labour voices are likely to support greater policy cooperation. Caroline Lucas, the Green MP, has explicitly called for that cooperation, as has briefly Vince Cable, the former business secretary. Lord Mathew Taylor, the former MP for Truro, is also understood to support the Ashdown initiative.
Ashdown himself as Liberal Democrat leader in 1995 abandoned political equidistance, putting his party explicitly to the left, but then found his plan for deeper Labour-Liberal Democrat cooperation stalled when Tony Blair won an unexpectedly massive Commons majority in 1997.
Prior to the 1997 election Robin Cook for Labour and Bob Maclennan for the Liberal Democrats, under the guidance of Blair and Ashdown, worked together on a joint programme on constitutional reform.
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