One interesting side-effect of my dissertation research has been looking at some of the responses to the 1992 general election. Any parallels to then are obviously inexact – Labour had a leadership contest then that didn’t threaten to split the party, for instance – but some of the reaction to the Tories’ fourth election victory in succession was to claim that everyone was doomed and John Major and Norman Lamont were now masters of all they surveyed in the political landscape. It’s interesting how much our conventional narrative of ‘Tories win election, then Black Wednesday happens’ elides the fact that there were several months between the two events when things looked very different.
It was in that gap – just a month after the election – that Paddy Ashdown delivered a speech in the town of Chard. It’s an important moment in the history of the party because it’s where Paddy began the process of switching the party’s strategy from one of equidistance between the two main parties and towards the goal of ‘realignment on the left’, a strategy first advocated by Jo Grimond in the 50s. The Chard speech didn’t make that leap in one go, but it does mark a clear positioning of the party as an ‘anti-Conservative’ one even though Ashdown is generally dismissive of Labour’s chances of recovery. Indeed, the idea that Labour was a hopeless case after an election defeat is perhaps the biggest parallel between 1992 and now – before Black Wednesday, things did look dire for Labour.
So the first lesson from 1992 is that in politics, things aren’t often as bad as they seem, and no matter how dominant a Government may look, events can always get in the way of even the best laid plans. No one expected that within twelve months of the 1992 that the Tories would have lost their reputation for economic confidence and would be facing guerilla warfare from their own back benches over the Maastricht Treaty.
The more interesting, and possibly important, lesson is how much of what Ashdown says in the speech is relevant today. Indeed, there are large sections of it that you could cut and paste into a speech for Tim Farron to give today, and they’d seem just as appropriate. Consider these as aims for the next five years, for instance:
to create the force powerful enough to remove the Tories; to assemble the policies capable of sustaining a different government; and to draw together the forces in Britain which will bring change and reform.
Or this as a reason why it needs to be done:
The poor, the unemployed, the homeless, those who have lost and will increasingly lose the small luxuries of hope as our public services continue to decline, our environment continues to get dirtier, and our pride in a compassionate and caring society withers away in the face of a continued Conservative assault on the things we took for granted as part of a civilized society only a few years ago. As we now contemplate our strategy for the years ahead, let us never forget that these are the people who sit huddled outside, waiting for us to get it right.
And this, on the role and ideology of the Liberal Democrats:
It is our task, as Liberal Democrats, to set our sails to the new winds which will blow through the nineties; to establish the new frontier between individual choice and collective responsibility; to draw up the practical means to change our economic system in order to respond to the environmental challenge; to liberate the political power of the individual within a practical system of government; to build a powerfully competitive economy, based on individual enterprise and founded on a flexible labour market; to create a taxation system whose purpose is not just to redistribute wealth, but also and perhaps chiefly, to redistribute opportunity; to extend ownership as a means of spreading wealth and diffusing economic power; to establish a network of individual rights which will fill the gap left by the death of collectivism; to rediscover pride in being English, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish within a Britain that is big enough to allow different cultures and diffused government to flourish; to respond to the decline of the nation state in Europe without recreating the nation state on a European scale; to find practical means to strengthen global institutions so as to increase our capacity to act to preserve world peace and respond to global catastrophe.
It’s an interesting speech, and worth reading in full, but this is at the heart of it. At the time, the popular media caricature of Paddy, thanks to Spitting Image, was that he led a party that was ‘neither one thing, nor the other, but somewhere inbetween’ and this is an attempt to move beyond that by pushing forward a policy agenda that’s both liberal and of the left. Yes, it’s straying into some of the territory and language that Tony Blair would use for New Labour, but it was those similarities that allowed Ashdown and Blair to develop a working relationship after 1994, by which time Ashdown and the party had been able to develop the party’s position in more detail.
What’s important is that while Ashdown couldn’t predict the events of the next few years, he understood the fundamental pressures that would drive the party’s strategy. The nature of the political and electoral system meant it was unlikely that someone would defeat the Tories on their own, but combining efforts to achieve a common aim doesn’t mean you have to surrender your own identity to achieve it. That’s something we need to bear in mind over the next few years if we want a happier result in 2020, regardless of the events that come between now and then.
And one final idea to take away from that speech: Paddy proposed working with other parties in a National Election Reform Commission, which doesn’t seem to have taken flight back then, but in our more diverse politics with more high-profile parties seeking electoral reform, maybe now its time has come?