Leading Article: Call the Prime Minister's bluff over the new politics, Mr Kennedy

THERE IS one test above all against which this week's speech by the new leader of the Liberal Democrats should be judged: will Charles Kennedy call the Prime Minister's bluff on New Labour's commitment to a new way of doing politics?

There is a fundamental confusion underlying the policy of "constructive opposition" to Labour which Mr Kennedy has inherited from Paddy Ashdown, which is that there is a difference between consensus politics and real pluralism. Tony Blair has a genius for consensus politics, so long as he is allowed to decide what the consensus is. When it comes to the genuine sharing of power he has, despite some promising signs, not yet been tested.

The key to this is the joint Cabinet committee, on which Liberal Democrats sit with ministers. The Liberal Democrat grass roots hate it, because they think their leaders are simply lending their party's name to a public relations exercise. And, though they were wrong to oppose its being set up, because it might have turned out differently, they have been proved to be essentially right. So far, the Liberal Democrats have not got anything from Tony Blair that he would not have given them anyway.

Proportional representation for the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and European elections? They were commitments that pre-dated Blair's leadership and which were in Labour's manifesto. Freedom of information law? Again, it was in the manifesto, and the joint Cabinet committee has failed to stop it being watered down, so that in too many instances it is weaker than John Major's "open government" code.

Half of the fault lies with the failure of the Liberal Democrats' liberal ambition; as a party, it is too stuck in the statist assumptions of the past and too little interested in seizing the real chance to defend real individual liberty. It has gone along with wishy-washy sentiment against fox-hunting. It has failed to make a stand against Jack Straw's illiberal policies on crime, knee-jerk anti-terrorist legislation, immigration and refugees. It is so much in hock to teachers that it cannot convincingly oppose the excessive prescription of David Blunkett's otherwise admirable attempts to raise standards. Surely a truly liberal party should be leading the charge against the frightening mentality that is driving parents, as we report today, to clear the bookshop shelves of Carol Vorderman's maths tests for three-year-olds?

Instead, the Liberal Democrats' vision of a "liberal education" seems confined to the issue of trying to restore free higher education for the largely middle-class families who would benefit from it in Scotland.

Mr Kennedy has made an impressive start on drugs policy, a litmus of liberalism, in putting Mr Ashdown's natural authoritarian tendencies behind him. But he has a lot to do if he is going to restore the party's real chance of political distinctiveness, which would be as the defender of true liberal values.

The other half of the blame for the failure of Lib-Lab co-operation to deliver, of course, lies with Mr Blair. The joint Cabinet committee is no more an exercise in sharing real power than are any of the 100 or so task forces that have been set up to co-opt businesses and leading Tories to the Blair Project.

That is the underlying significance of the Cabinet split over the issue of proportional representation in local councils. It is opposed by Cabinet heavyweights, including the Chancellor and the Deputy Prime Minister. But, if Mr Blair can deliver it, it could make a real difference to the quality of local decision-making in many of Labour's one-party statelets. Combined with directly-elected mayors, it offers the chance to break out of the morass of lethargy and incompetence in which local government is mired.

It may seem like a small issue on which to pull out of the joint Cabinet committee. But Mr Kennedy needs an excuse to do that anyway. If that will not do, surely Labour's plans for a House of Cronies to replace the House of Lords would serve just as well?

The Liberal Democrats would be strengthened electorally by demonstrating their independence of Labour, and it would be better for the country to have a strong party arguing for genuine liberal and democratic causes. Mr Kennedy should upset his activists this week by making clear that he is "coalitionable". But he should also upset Mr Blair by making it clear that a meaningful coalition can exist only between parties with different views. In the end, a Labour Prime Minister is more likely to be forced to move in the right direction by a strong and distinctive liberal stance than by allowing the Liberal Democrats to be used as cover for a bogus exercise in consensus politics.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Rob James-Collier, who plays under-butler Thomas Barrow, admitted to suffering sleepless nights over the Series 5 script

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence star in new film 'Serena'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Some might argue that a fleeting moment in the actor’s scintillating, silver-tongued company is worth every penny.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth stars as master magician Stanley Crawford in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

film
Arts and Entertainment
U2 have released Songs of Innocence in partnership with Apple

musicBand have offered new record for free on iTunes
Arts and Entertainment
Brad Pitt stars in David Ayer's World War II drama Fury

film
Arts and Entertainment
Top hat: Pharrell Williams

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum star as undercover cops in 22 Jump Street

film
Arts and Entertainment
David Bowie is back with fresh music after last year's hit album The Next Day

music
Arts and Entertainment
Keith Richards is publishing 'Gus and Me: The Story of My Granddad and My First Guitar', a children's book about his introduction to music

music
Arts and Entertainment
Calvin Harris has generated £4m in royalties from the music platform

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week