Paddy Ashdown urges British ‘progressive centre’ to unite

Lib Dem says ‘lost tribes’ of Labour voters and Conservatives horrified by May’s hard Brexit mean centrists must get together

Progressive politicians from all parties must “get out of their tribal huddles” and forge a new centrist home for voters who are “desperately worried” about the direction Theresa May is taking the country in the wake of the Brexit vote, Paddy Ashdown has urged.

Lord Ashdown, the former Liberal Democrat leader, said there was a “lost tribe” of Labour supporters who did not back Jeremy Corbyn, and a similar group of Conservatives who believed May had led the party “onto ground that is indistinguishable from Ukip”.

The peer said he was calling for progressive liberal politicians from all parties to put aside their tribal differences at a desperate moment for centrist politics.

“What has happened with Trump, with British politics spinning to the extremes and the urgency of a possible election in May, means this has moved away from a question of ‘wouldn’t it be nice’ to a statement of ‘now we must’,” he said.Ashdown said Tory politicians such as Ken Clarke and Chris Patten now effectively had no home in their own party. He raised the prospect of tactical voting pacts, coming together under the badge of a liberal progressive movement, or even eventually the formation of a new alliances or coalitions.

“If the right can get their act together, must the progressive centre remain fractured and divided?” the peer said.

He said his own party had a chance to illustrate the appetite for a progressive liberal party by doing well in the Richmond Park byelection, where the Lib Dem candidate, Sarah Olney, is fighting the pro-Brexit former Tory Zac Goldsmith, now standing as an independent due to the government’s decision to approve Heathrow expansion.

If the Lib Dems and Labour do well, “that ought to act as a trigger for the progressive centre to find some way of getting together and putting into practice how do we … over time put together a political force that can replace what we’ve got”, he said.

Ashdown refused to say whether he had been talking to politicians from other parties about the prospect of a new liberal alliance. However, there are already known to be channels open between moderate Tory rebels pushing for a soft Brexit and other parties in the House of Commons, before debates on how the UK leaves the EU.

Ashdown said he believed the political gravity of the UK was still on the centre-left and argued there was already an appetite for a new progressive movement coming from outside Westminster, as millions of people were “desperately worried and desperately concerned” about the direction the country was going under May.

He said this might start as a revolutionary grassroots movement for the centre ground but would ultimately have to include MPs.

Pressed on the barriers to getting centrist Tories, Labour and Lib Dems to work together, Ashdown said: “There are all sorts of difficulties but we really have to try this, otherwise you hand this country over lock, stock and barrel to Mrs May … It is a desperate moment. This is a clarion call, it’s urgent, and let’s get our act together.”

He said there were already a number of groups that could become a framework for a new progressive liberal movement such as More United, Common Ground and the Progressive Alliance.

Ashdown has long been a proponent of uniting the centre-left, having discussed a Lib-Lab coalition with Tony Blair before the 1997 general election.

Some senior Labour figures, including Clive Lewis, the shadow business secretary, have been open to the prospect of working with other parties on the left to form a progressive alliance. Caroline Lucas, the Green leader, has also called for such a movement.

However, many others in Labour cannot see the sense in assisting smaller parties if it wants to win a majority at the next election.


Rowena Mason Deputy political editor

The GuardianTramp

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