Between 1994 and 1999, Paddy Ashdown and Tony Blair led a process of collaboration between the Liberal Democrats and the Labour Party, with the aim not merely of defeating the Conservatives but of establishing clear common ground between the progressive parties in British politics.
Some of the outcomes of this process – ‘the project’, in Ashdown’s phrase – were public, such as the programme of agreed constitutional reforms drawn up by Robin Cook and Robert Maclennan. Far more were secret: covert electoral collaboration in marginal seats during the 1997 election, attempts to agree a programme for government, talks about coalition – and hints of a more permanent alliance.
In the end, the size of Labour’s majority in 1997 destroyed the case for coalition, and the main outcome was a Joint Cabinet Committee between the two parties. What it achieved is not clear, and it was abandoned by Ashdown’s successor Charles Kennedy.
Now, in a period of cooperation between political parties very different from that envisaged by Ashdown and Blair, what can we learn from ‘the project’? What did it achieve? What could it have achieved under different circumstances? And what can it tell us about the desirability and achievability of collaboration between progressive forces?
Paddy Ashdown, Rt Hon Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon GCMG KBE
Leader of the Liberal Democrats 1988-99
Roger Liddle, Lord Liddle
Special Adviser to Bill Rodgers 1976-81; Member of the SDP and then Liberal Democrats 1981-94, member of the Lib Dem Federal Policy Committee; Special Adviser to Tony Blair 1997-2004
Rt Hon Pat McFadden MP
Adviser to Donald Dewar 1988-93, to John Smith 1993-94 and to Tony Blair 1994-2005
Chair: Steve Richards, Chief Political Commentator, The Independent
Jointly organised by the Liberal Democrat History Group and the Labour History Group