Lib Dem Conference: Kennedy commits party to closer links with Labour

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The Independent Online
CHARLES KENNEDY ignored the critics in his party yesterday and set the Liberal Democrats on course to join a Blair Government after the next election.

In a moving ending to his first big conference speech as Liberal Democrat leader, Mr Kennedy appealed to the party to trust him, describing his election as the "chance of a lifetime". "Politically for us, it is the chance of a generation. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. I won't let you down. Let us go and make a success of it together," he said.

The prospect of coalition government with a seat in the Cabinet will upset many grassroots activists who protested this week at closer links with Labour. Mr Kennedy swept aside their objections, making clear he would not rule out co-operation with ministers, although he assured the party that an extension of the co-operation with the Government would only take place "if our policies are implemented, if you, the party, consents, and if we remain independent".

Having promised that a formal coalition with Labour is not part of his agenda, Mr Kennedytold delegates the "20th century was too much a Conservative century. The 21st can be a century of Liberal Democracy." In an echo of Sir David Steel's speech more than a decade ago, where as the party leader he urged activists to go back to their constituencies and prepare for government, Mr Kennedy said: "I'm ready for it. I know you are. I'm eager."

In a move to reassure Tony Blair that the Liberal Democrats are a more disciplined, mature party than in the past, Mr Kennedy also announced moves to limit the influence of the activists on party policy, by opening internal policy committees to selection by one-member, one-vote.

After a week in which his defeated rival for the leadership, Simon Hughes, led criticism of his ability to formulate policy, his speech could be seen as a missed opportunity to lay out new policy initiatives. Mr Kennedy tried to draw a line under the divisions caused by the leadership election and to move away from his popular image as the game show guest - joking about his appearances on Have I Got News for You? and Call My Bluff - to a leader with a serious political agenda.

He was so nervous about his performance that he went through a full dress rehearsal in the conference hall late at night on the eve of his address, while his party was celebrating.

He continued with amendments to the text late yesterday, but the four main themes - to be repeated in the general election - had been well trailed: a greater commitment than the other parties to the euro, green issues, higher spending on public services, and "fair voting" for local elections. Attacking other cabinet ministers, Mr Kennedy carefully avoided any criticism of Mr Blair.

He reserved most condemnation for William Hague, saying he should "grow up" in his approach to the Northern Ireland peace process. Mr Kennedy knows his party has to restore its vote in key Tory marginals to have any hope of sharing power with Labour after the next election, and he warned his party that any swing to the Left would lead it into the "political cul-de-sac of all time".

Mr Kennedy added to the pressure on Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, to do more for the public services including an increase in pensions, on which he called for a cross-party commission to be formed.

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