Charles Kennedy: 'The public expects and wants the party to do well. It is up to us to capitalise on that'

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The 10.17 train from London to Luton arrives on time, but Charles Kennedy is not on it.

The 10.17 train from London to Luton arrives on time, but Charles Kennedy is not on it.

The Liberal Democrat leader has been delayed, unexpectedly, and the welcome party is slightly bemused at his non-arrival. "We were expecting him earlier," says one gingerly.

Luckily, 10 minutes later, Mr Kennedy hops off the next train, smiling broadly, his hand extended to meet the first of hundreds of local supporters who have turned out to meet him. "Hello, how are you?" he asks. "My goodness, the weather has picked up."

The activists are swiftly won over by Mr Kennedy's disarming bonhomie. For the MP for Ross, Skye and Inverness West has a knack for importing the feelgood factor south.

An 81-year-old woman, who has just taken up art classes, beams like an 18-year-old as Mr Kennedy declares, with a sparkle: "You are a budding artiste." But there is not long to chat, for Mr Kennedy is whisked off to the heart of Luton South, a seat the Liberal Democrats' leader describes as a "wild card" in the party's general election pack.

The constituency, where the party admits it was "nowhere last time", is now considered an outside Liberal Democrat hope because of the Iraq war. At the last council election, the party won a score of seats and the local Labour party is said to be in a "panic" about the upsurge in support for their rivals.

Mr Kennedy says Luton South is "a barometer for what people should be watching out for" at the election. "I think Luton is a very intriguing battle ground indeed. We have high hopes," he says.

In an almost exclusively Asian neighbourhood, where stores selling wedding saris sit alongside Kashmiri sweet shops, Mr Kennedy meets a group of grocers dressed in traditional salwar kurtha. They tell him they are "traders" and want him to pose for a photograph holding a large bag of onions. The Liberal Democrat leader obliges and jokes: "I hope you're not insider traders?"

"No, we are not. We are voting Liberal Democrat this time," they reply.

It is not only in the predominantly Asian areas that the party is mopping up support. In three-bed-semi land down the road, the signals from behind the net curtains are that Tony Blair is firmly out of favour. Thousands of students living in scruffy flats agree and are signing up to Mr Kennedy's pledge to scrap tuition fees.

"It's a green light for Liberal Democracy," quips Mr Kennedy as the lights switch from red to green at a street crossing.

He leads his growing cavalcade of supporters, with their bright orange banners, across the road. Snaking its way through Luton - via the mosque - the hundred-strong throng of Asian men finds its way to a hall, packed with recent converts to the cause.

The Liberal Democrats' leader receives rapturous applause as he takes up the theme of Iraq. "The decision to join President Bush in that invasion of Iraq is without doubt in my mind the worst foreign policy decision this country took since Suez back in 1956," he declares. "And I am proud - though I take no great pleasure from the fact - that as a party we argued so consistently against it."

He argues that Britain should be "working towards a phased withdrawal of our troops from Iraq" - a message he will repeat throughout the election.

There are more cheers, as he pledges not to play "lowest common denominator politics" by exploiting the issue of race and immigration at the election. "I am not going to go round talking Britain down. I am going to talk Britain up," he says.

Away from the crowd, at a table bedecked with pink doilies, Mr Kennedy explains that he will not be drawn into the negative slanging match between the two other party leaders, or exploit public concerns about Gypsies and asylum-seekers, even if that means risking the impression that the party is being squeezed out of the political debate. "I am not going to spend a month of my life talking down the others and talking down the country. I am going to speak aspirationally and very straightforwardly in this election," he says.

But as the Liberal Democrats begin to look more of a threat to the Conservatives and Labour, is he prepared for the mud-slinging that will inevitably follow?

"Bring them on," he challenges. "We are robust. You don't go through an experience like the Iraq war, inside and outside Parliament, and stick together as a party and have the hammer blows coming from all directions without being fundamentally tough."

Mr Kennedy is adamant that his party will not be "responding in kind". But he is clear that the vision of Labour activists jostling Liberal Democrat candidates - as they did in the Birmingham by-election - will backfire on the Government.

"The more people see that in their living-rooms each night of the week the better, as far as I am concerned."

Mr Kennedy has already started a gruelling tour of Britain which will take him to about 150 target constituencies throughout the campaign. He says he detects a groundswell of support for the Liberal Democrats not yet seen. "What I am detecting in all parts of the country are two things in a much more pronounced way than I have experienced before: one, a public expectation that we are going to do well; and the second is a public goodwill that people want us to do well. And that is a terrific current to be working with. It's up to us obviously to capitalise on it.I think the potential is there for a decisively good election for the Liberal Democrats."

But with 55 MPs now in the Commons, how many gains will it take for the party to have a successful election?

"I consider an improvement in our share of the vote and an improvement in our number of seats as being a successful election but obviously the extent to which you move the word 'successful' from lower case to block capitals depends how much that share of the vote and number of seats goes up," he says. "There are no glass ceilings to our ambitions, but at the same time don't overstate your case to an unreal extent this far out."

Mr Kennedy says he won't "say things that I don't believe and I am not going to say things that have the hint of incredibility about them in the minds of the public".

This honest approach to political life has led to consistently high trust ratings for the Liberal Democrats' leader.

Is there a risk of underplaying expectations? "We have been very careful not to put figures on eventual outcomes but I think we will see a big increase in our share of the national vote. How that translates into individual seats? Who knows in terms of the breakdown. But the potential is there for it to be very good. And I think we have just got to stick to the positive message and keep hammering away at it."

He says he feels happy and confident about being the very public face of the party's election push. "I am up for this and looking forward to it. I don't feel any degree of undue pressure - in large measure because I am feeling healthy and happy in the personal sense."

Part of his optimistic energy is related to the imminent arrival of his first child, who is due smack bang in the middle of the election. "I am very excited indeed about the forthcoming arrival and I am in an extremely positive frame of mind about life in general and politics in particular," he says.

Mr Kennedy plans to take "a day or two off" after the birth to be with his wife and new baby. Yet some of his more zealous campaigners regard the timing of the birth as extremely inconvenient and have hinted privately that an elective Cesarean should be considered if the birth gets too close to polling day. Mr Kennedy looks amazed at the ruthlessness of his campaign staff. "They can get lost," he laughs. "I will lay down certain things for the good of this party - but the wellbeing of my wife and child are not amongst them."

THE CV

Born: 25 November 1959, Inverness

Education: Lochaber High; Glasgow University; Indiana University, US

Family: Married Sarah Gurling, July 2002; first child due this month

Career:

1982-83: Journalist with BBC Inverness

1983: Fulbright scholar, Indiana University

1983: Elected as Social Democrat Party MP for Ross, Cromarty & Skye

1987-88: SDP spokesman on Scotland and social security

1988-89: SDP spokesman on trade and industry

1989-92: Liberal Democrat spokesman on health

1992-97: Liberal Democrat spokesman on European affairs

1997-99: Liberal Democrat spokesman on agriculture, fisheries and food

1999-Present: Leader of the Liberal Democrats

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