MONITOR: LIBERAL DEMOCRAT CONFERENCE: Duller than a tumble drier
Reaction to Charles Kennedy's first party conference speech as leader of the Liberal Democrats in Harrogate this week
Saturday 25 September 1999
THE FUNDAMENTAL problem for the Lib Dems is that New Labour has taken its `middle ground'. The point has been reached where it is now difficult to see clearly what the Liberal Democrats are for. There was a time when the old Liberals had a role in suggesting radical new ideas that were then sometimes taken up by the major parties. There was at least a hint Charles Kennedy might consider a similar role in his comments on drugs. The implication was that partial de-criminalisation might be in his mind, although he did not say so. He might also find a role in attacking the bossy `government knows best' tendency of the current administration. He had better discover something distinctive to say soon, otherwise the prospects of his party could be bleak.
YOU CAN tell by his body language that Mr K doesn't quite believe his own rhetoric. He was up until midnight rehearsing his speech to an empty auditorium. Twelve hours on he didn't seem to realise he had a live audience. He'll have to do better. His speech was about as inspirational as watching underwear in a tumble drier. I have heard him more passionate telling jokes in the Strangers Bar of the House of Commons. Perhaps he was trying to impress us with his gravitas. Speaking slowly, in short sentences, like Tony Blair. But Charlie is no Tony. Not yet, and probably not ever. A speech can be a long time in politics. Yesterday was too long. Mr K fluffed his lines. He said he was "too old to rock `n' roll and not too young to die". Right. He died on stage at Harrogate. (Paul Routledge)
A POLITICAL leader of less than two months' standing is entitled to some breathing room. But Charles Kennedy knows that he is only 18 months away from an expected general election. Neither he nor his colleagues can afford the luxury of prolonged contemplation. A third party requires something stronger than abstract aspirations. Mr Kennedy should decide what it is that he wants to spend more money on, or alternatively where he would choose to redirect existing funds. As things stand, voters will legitimately assume that he is indeed occupying territory to the left of Labour. The Liberal Democrats have one thing in common with the Conservatives; neither party can afford to be admirably forthright on the euro but uncertain about everything else.
CHARLES KENNEDY did not sound like a general leading his troops into battle. That may be because the new leader of the Liberal Democrats is not yet sure where the battle will be - or how many of his troops will follow him there. But at their conference in Harrogate, he did at least try to address the question that has dogged the Lib Dems for years: what is the party for? First it must not try to occupy the left wing territory vacated by Tony Blair's new Labour. Second, they cannot afford to stray far into the Conservative domain, in the hope of attracting stragglers from William Hague's march towards narrow nationalism. Mr Kennedy sensibly eschewed both extremes, emphasising a common cause with Labour in keeping the Tories out, and the folly of being seen too much as a high-tax high- spend party. While the Tories continue to bury their heads in introspection, Lib Dems have the chance to appear a credible opposition - in ideas, if not in votes. It is important for the health of British politics that they should succeed.
FOR ALL his talk about reinvigorating British political culture, the speech failed to suggest that Mr Kennedy was the man to do it. There was a disturbing ring of truth when he confessed that he had spent more time thinking about the passage devoted to William Hague than to any other. Such waspish carping at political rivals filled the place left absent by any attempt at an inspirational political vision. Here is the party which, while it may not have enjoyed power in this century, has produced many of its most influential thinkers - Maynard Keynes and Beveridge to name but two. This is the party which, free from powerful interest blocs, can boast an independent and coherent political philosophy. That lies deep in the culture of the party, but Mr Kennedy failed to take any cognisance of it, let alone sketch out how liberal principles could furnish the party with a radical, relevant brand of politics for the future.
MR KENNEDY'S challenge is to speak up for those on the wrong end of poor public services, such as pupils and patients, rather than defend the inadequacies of teachers and doctors. As yet, it is a challenge he shows no inclination to meet. Mr Hughes wondered aloud if the party was already past its high watermark. It is a fear Mr Kennedy privately shares.It is a mystery to me how espousing policies that appeal to the Labour Left can help a party which has the Tories in second place in most of its seats and whose target seats are currently Tory-held. It is the central conundrum facing Mr Kennedy. His success or failure as leader will be determined by how he resolves it. (Andrew Neil)
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