Leading Article: Mr Kennedy's debut contains some hopeful hints of liberalism

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CHARLES KENNEDY'S first conference speech as Liberal Democrat leader turned out to be a dignified affair. The affable blokiness that his admirers take for charisma and his enemies for superficiality was kept sternly in check. After a week in which he was at times in danger of being drowned out by the noisy demands of activists, the assiduous self-promotion of the defeated but unbowed challenger Simon Hughes and an emotional farewell from Paddy Ashdown, Mr Kennedy succeeded in regaining control of the proceedings. His assured performance reminded a party that is instinctively allergic to deference that its immediate future belongs to him, and that it owes him loyalty and respect.

The core message - that under his leadership the Lib Dems will not seek their future as an old left alternative to New Labour - is surely the right one. Too readily, the party is prone to descending into a culture of protest, instinctively seeking to raise taxes and public spending without enquiring too closely into what would be achieved by so doing. As Mr Kennedy reminded them, the quest should not simply be to spend more, but to spend more thoughtfully.

He issued a timely warning to New Labour not to bow to the temptation to use the Treasury's "war chest" to deliver tax cuts for the better off. There are better uses for spare revenue, such as lifting the tax burden from the working poor. True Liberals - once described by the recusant MP Michael Meadowcroft as "people who can't stand the Tories and don't trust the state" - should be looking for fresh solutions to the problems of health, education, welfare and transport, rather than always turning back to the state for succour.

Mr Kennedy's message was most convincing where he concentrated on exposing New Labour's vulnerable flank as an autocratic party bent on imposing heavy-handed, often needlessly bossy solutions from the centre. We applaud his call for more open thinking on decriminalising soft drugs, for a meaningful commitment to freedom of information and for an end to knee-jerk asylum and immigration policies. We hope these are indications that Mr Kennedy is going to carve out a genuinely liberal niche in politics.

On the vexatious issue of Europe, Mr Kennedy urged Tony Blair to break the "silence of the sheep" and lead from the front. His forcefulness on this issue is both welcome and necessary.

Having begun to give shape to his ideas, Mr Kennedy must now decide what his strategic aims are and how he intends to pursue them. Proportional representation in local government has emerged as the most appealing short- term objective - not least because it is an outcome Mr Blair is keen to deliver, since it would break up Labour's rotten boroughs in the town halls. But here, and on the broader matter of pursuing PR for general elections, Mr Kennedy will have to beware New Labour's tendency to preach the merits of co-operation and extract support from the third party while giving away little or nothing in return. Liberal Democrats, said Mr Kennedy, were "nobody's poodles". We suspect that is a pledge that will be sorely tested over the coming months and years.

Mr Kennedy needs to give a firm message to the electorate that Liberal Democracy is a choice worth taking seriously while retaining the flexibility and tactical flair to respond to the dynamics of political developments in the years ahead. It is an exhilarating task, but a far from easy one. Given that he has made a competent start to the job in hand, it would be churlish to wish him anything except good luck and steady nerves.

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