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Paddy Ashdown: Liberal Democrats face existential crisis that could get worse

3 min read

The Liberal Democrats are going “backwards” and face existential challenges that could get worse, Paddy Ashdown has said.

The party's former leader said despite the centre-ground of British politics being “empty, voiceless, vacant and uncontested”, the Lib Dems are “far from filling that gap”.

Ahead of their annual conference in Bournemouth next week, he warned that the party was perceived as “establishment”, with the biggest problem being that they are “doing very little new thinking and producing very few new ideas”.

In an article for Liberal Democrat Voice, the peer, who led the party from 1988 to 1999, urged colleagues to produce “dangerous” ideas in a bid to be seen as "radical" by voters.

“The biggest danger for our party at the seaside next week lies in glossing over the existential challenges which now face us," he said.

“Unless we are prepared to be realistic about where we are, return to being radical about what we propose, recreate ourselves as an insurgent force and re-kindle our lost habit of intellectual ferment, things could get even worse for us.”

“Consider this. We are the party who, more than any other, represents the progressive centre in our country (I prefer centre left, but I am not in the business of dividing here). That space has never been more empty, voiceless, vacant and uncontested than it was in the last election.

"And yet far from filling that gap and mobilising those in it, our vote went down to an even lower base."

He said the party's chances of achieving success at the ballot box should be at an historic high - although they won just 12 seats in June, compared to the 57 they claimed at their peak in 2010.

He added: "Not in my lifetime have there been conditions more favourable for a Lib Dem advance in a General Election. But we went backwards.

“When I joined our Party we had been, for the best part of a hundred years, a radical and insurgent party and remained so right up to the moment when being insurgent became popular – when we became the Government. Now people see us, not as a force for change but as a part of the establishment.

“Whether we could have been insurgents in Government is a question for history. The question for now is; there is a hunger for change out there, why don’t we any longer look or sound like the people to bring it?

"There may be many reasons for that. But the biggest one is that we are doing very little new thinking and producing very few new ideas."

Mr Ashdown added that the party should work with all other major parties in a bid to renew the current state of "broken politics", and pointed to policy areas that had been advanced through cross-party working, such as green politics, devolution and gender equality.

And he praised new leader Vince Cable for beginning the "process of thinking big again".

"Can you name one big, dangerous idea we Lib Dems have produced since 2015? Vince’s speech of last week began the process of thinking big again. We should pick up his lead and start coming up with our own new, dangerous ideas – and debating them at Conference."

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