Leading Article: Mr Kennedy's chats with Mr Blair are no substitute for a clear party strategy

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The Independent Culture
CHARLES KENNEDY and his Liberal Democrat colleagues yesterday filed into 10 Downing Street for their first meeting with Labour ministers at the joint cabinet committee since Mr Kennedy became leader of his party. Mr Kennedy was, he told us at the weekend, looking for an "honest, friendly, frank appraisal of where we've got to and where we go from here". He also wanted to issue a threat to the Prime Minster: "If Labour are not able to reconfirm, as it were, a commitment to a referendum on proportional representation for Westminster, I certainly don't see any future prospect for further constitutional co-operation between our parties."

This ultimatum invites closer examination. Mr Kennedy went on, rightly, to argue that: "I don't think that there's room for manoeuvre there - it's appeared in one Labour manifesto; there therefore would be no excuse for excluding it or excising it from a future manifesto." The signs are that Mr Blair was unfazed by this. Mr Kennedy should know better. Labour's manifesto for the next election will be published rather closer to polling day, in other words in something like 18 months' time. Mr Kennedy's threat is, therefore, one that can carry force only at a rather distant date in the future. On this showing, Mr Kennedy has a good deal to learn about getting tough with the Prime Minister.

Mr Kennedy should be frank with himself. The notion that, by turning up once every few months to a committee that has a purely consultative role, the Liberal Democrats would have much effect on the actions of centralising illiberal ministers such as Jack Straw, is risible. There are few concrete achievements to show for this whole process - something that Mr Kennedy himself occasionally hinted at before he became leader.

Constitutional change there has been - but pretty much only that already envisaged in Labour's manifesto. On the key questions that Mr Kennedy himself identifies - democratising the Lords and freedom of information - the Government has regressed. Where is PR for local government? Where is the sign of even warm words on the Jenkins report? Where, indeed, is the abolition of tuition fees coming from the Scottish Lib-Lab coalition?

Against that, the Liberal Democrats have passed up a historic opportunity to replace a Conservative Party in disarray - not by becoming a right- wing party, but simply by providing sensible alternatives to those who are disillusioned with Labour and cannot take the Tories seriously.

Mr Kennedy has inherited Mr Ashdown's strategy. It was flawed but, at least, as we know from those leaked diaries, it had a clear aim: a coalition that would probably assume permanency. The weakness of Mr Kennedy's leadership is that though he has adopted the language and machinery of Mr Ashdown's project - constructive opposition, the joint committee, the odd phrase in a speech carefully crafted to resonate with new Labour rhetoric - he has not adopted Mr Ashdown's destination.

More to the point, he has failed to describe the destination for his party that he seeks. His party faces losses at the next election and needs quickly to define its own political identity. He must stop wasting time shooting the breeze with Tony Blair, and get back to the hard work of opposition. That is our honest, friendly, frank appraisal of where Mr Kennedy has got to and where he goes from here.