Paddy Ashdown dedicated his political life into building the Liberals, and later the Liberal Democrats, into a force sufficiently large and credible to make coalition politics viable in Britain.
He had always intended this to be in partnership with Labour, for Lord Ashdown represented a ‘Lib-Lab’ style of politics which gradually fell out of favour with his party under Charles Kennedy’s left-populism and Nick Clegg’s Orange Bookers.
To that end, as Adam Boulton explained in today’s Times, he maintained close contacts with the Labour leadership under Tony Blair – a point he apparently lied about to journalists. However the 1997 New Labour landslide put an end to any prospect of the third party sharing power, and when at last the Lib Dems did enter government at the other end of the Blair era it was with the Conservatives.
It is to his credit that Ashdown ended up supporting Clegg’s bid to sell his sceptical party on the Coalition. In fact, whilst Kennedy may have taken the Lib Dems to their strongest-ever showing in the Commons in 2005, and Clegg led them at last into government, there can be no doubt that both men built their achievements on the foundations laid by Ashdown during the newly-merged Lib Dems’ first crucial years in the early 1990s.
Not only did he help to pioneer their strategy of concentrating on local government and building up seemingly-impregnable holds on individual seats through hyper-local campaigning, he also fought off David Owen’s holdouts in the continuity SDP, who for a brief moment looked as if they might credibly challenge the then-Social and Liberal Democrats for their place as Britain’s third party.
However, in the aftermath of the 2015 election the shortcomings of this strategy had been cruelly exposed, as participation in government overrode the Lib Dems’ “scores of by-elections” approach and saw them wiped out across swaths of the country, including their former South Western heartland and Ashdown’s old seat of Yeovil.
In his defence, however, he most likely believed that either he or his successors would be able to extract some form of electoral reform as the price of supporting one of the “two old parties” in government. Following the stinging defeat of the ‘Yes’ campaign in 2011’s AV referendum – a defeat owed in part to inexpertise in properly national campaigning and an unwillingness to work with the right, features of Ashdown’s style – perhaps a devastating reckoning for the Lib Dems was all but assured.
As he finally leaves the stage, his party stands in a weaker position that it was even he took over as leader in 1988. Down to just 11 MPs, versus 20 in 1988, the Lib Dems have even lost their position as Westminster’s third party to the Scottish Nationalists. Neither Tim Farron nor Sir Vince Cable, with their overweening focus on Europe, have yet been able to replicate Ashdown’s success in building up a small, liberal party into a potent political force.