Paddy Ashdown believes the Brexit vote emphasises the country's fractures—his new movement is out to fix thatby Sam Macrory / August 18, 2016 / Leave a comment
Published in September 2016 issue of Prospect Magazine
“Political parties are too small to be safely in charge of politics,” warned Paddy Ashdown in a bleak assessment of the challenges facing Britain following the vote to leave the European Union. After spending the referendum campaign relentlessly making the case to “Remain,” Ashdown felt crushed by Brexit, tweeting “God help our country” as the result became clear. This was the second time in just over a year that Ashdown, who led the Liberal Democrats from 1988 to 1999, found himself on the wrong side of public opinion, with his party ejected from government and reduced to just eight MPs last May. Ashdown, however, is refusing to give up. Last month he unveiled his blueprint for reshaping British politics in the form of a crowd-funded movement that would “give a voice to the millions of progressive, open-minded and tolerant people in the UK.” He hopes that this movement, called MoreUnited.uk, can inspire people in a way that parties, including his own, no longer can because they “have too small memberships and they tend to be very tribal.”
Speaking to Prospect in his garden in Somerset, Ashdown pitched MoreUnited.uk as “Britain’s first high-tech political start-up.” Joining costs “some money, any money, one pence, £1,000” and its policies and structure will be decided on by a one-member-one-vote basis over the internet. Along with a small group including historian Simon Schama and entrepreneur Martha Lane Fox, Ashdown is billed as a “convenor” of the movement, and he argued that it could reach out beyond political parties who “in difficult times tend to crawl into their shell, shut the door and celebrate their uniqueness.”
How it operates, and what its policies will be, are as yet undecided. “I know how I’d like this to work, in my usual Paddy Ashdown kind of way, but if you’re creating a people’s movement then I can’t be proscriptive,” Ashdown explained. “But it would be unwise for us to have more than five policies, maybe 10, because then it becomes a political party.”
The line between movement and party, however, can be a thin one. MoreUnited.uk will support, financially and with manpower, candidates who “commit” to its policies, with the movement to determine what “sanctions we take if they make the promise and then betray it” once in parliament.
Asked to describe to whom he is hoping to reach out, Ashdown settled on what he called a “rather clumsy” term. “I’m resisting placing this in the left-right spectrum, which is why I use ‘modern progressives,’” he said, before explaining that he had taken inspiration from Jo Cox, the Labour MP murdered in her Batley and Spen constituency in June. “I started thinking about this long before, but in shorthand I think you would call them the Cox values: a modern progressive economy, an internationalist approach, environmental, tolerant, welcoming immigration.”
“It may be that our country is tipping away from internationalism to narrow isolationism, that is making a movement towards more brutal and uncivilised values”
While that may sound like a Liberal Democrat pledge-card, Ashdown maintained that he is appealing beyond his party. “This is not about the Lib Dems,” he insisted, and made clear that its leader is supportive of his plans. “I informed Tim Farron. I wouldn’t ever want to do anything if it was unhelpful to my leader. He’s strongly in favour of this. I’ve made sure, in a sensible and courteous fashion, other parties also know this is going on.” Instead this appeal goes beyond his party and to a country which he is certain is “a small ‘l’ liberal country—the public out there are exactly in this space.”
Recent electoral maths suggests otherwise. At the general election nearly 1.5m more people voted Ukip than Liberal Democrat. Electoral reform, so beloved of the progressives that Ashdown hopes to reach, was rejected in the 2011 referendum. Over a million more people voted to “Leave” the EU than remain a member. Parliament hardly screams liberalism either, with the country now led by a Conservative prime minister not known for her liberal instincts, the Labour Party taken ever further leftwards under Jeremy Corbyn, and a tiny cohort of Lib Dems and sole Green MP struggling to make themselves heard. Could it be that the centre ground Ashdown hopes to occupy simply does not exist? He bristled at the suggestion, complained that “fear” had triumphed over “hope” at the general election, but then admitted that “those who have argued the case for the political centre, perhaps not even excluding me, need to ask themselves serious questions… and maybe that does require some rethinking.”
It’s a rethinking which sounds familiar. Propelled in part by Momentum, the Jeremy Corbyn-supporting grassroots organisation which vows “to create a mass movement for real progressive change,” in a 48-hour period in July more than 180,000 people have signed up as registered Labour supporters in order to vote in this autumn’s leadership contest. Corbyn himself has described Labour “as a social movement… who want to see a different world and do things very differently.” Perhaps support for this brand of politics runs deeper than Ashdown’s own? Ashdown shrugged off comparisons with Momentum—“They are all about Labour”—but accepted that his own movement might “produce a Jeremy Corbyn in charge.” And then? “If that’s what they want to do, then fine. But Labour can’t win on its own any longer.”
Equally dismissive of the suggestion that a restoration of the moderate wing of the Labour Party would make his movement redundant—“Even in those circumstances Labour can’t win a majority again without abandoning tribalism”—Ashdown admitted it was possible that a new party, taking in his own, could emerge. Though he ruled himself out and insisted that tending to his garden was his priority, he predicted it was “inevitable” that the movement would acquire a leader: “If you start a movement which people are engaged in and it works then it has its own life; it can go anywhere it likes. I haven’t a clue what it will be.”
This is not the first time Ashdown has made an attempt at a realignment of the political centre-left in Britain. Ahead of the 1997 general election he talked frequently with Labour leader Tony Blair about the ways their parties could work together before Labour’s landslide victory ended Ashdown’s agenda. A joint policy committee limped on for a few years before Blair became “obsessed” with winning a second majority.
Has a political realignment of the left become an obsession for Ashdown rather than a realistic goal? He interrupted to deny the charge: “The important thing about this movement isn’t ‘what is Paddy Ashdown’s lifetime obsession?’ The point is are there millions out there who also believe in a less tribal approach.”
And if there aren’t? For once, Ashdown’s bullish optimism faltered. “It may be that I’m wrong,” he admitted, his usual self-assurance briefly slipping. “It may be that our country is tipping away from internationalism to narrow isolationism, that it is making a movement towards more brutal and uncivilised values, that that famous habit of compromise, which people always regard as being one of the great glories of Britain, is now diminishing.”
So is this a final attempt at realignment, one last pitch for a progressive centre that may or may not exist, a last chance to show that Britain is the liberal country he believes it to be? Reluctantly, Ashdown accepted that Britain may not be that country after all. “Start-ups don’t succeed sometimes… If this doesn’t work then we have to look at a Britain which is making its way towards something much more worrying, something much more ugly,” he warned. “What we have seen with Brexit, in the United States, in France, in small beginnings in Germany, is a tracking towards an ugly movement that will fracture the only possibilities that we have to have peaceful societies and a peaceful wider world. I fear for my grandchildren anyway, but if that is allowed to happen, if that’s what takes over our politics, takes over the mood of our country, then I do fear for the future of our country. And I’m not prepared to see this wonderful country, that I love so much, make that transition without anyone opposing it.”
He can’t be sure that a liberal, progressive Britain really does exist beyond this country’s apparent political make-up, and beyond the reach of political parties as we know them, but Ashdown will fight on every front to make it a reality.